How to get your message across in writing

Writing is easy, right?

You learn how to do it at primary school, so nobody doubts you can do it. Except that’s not quite true – there’s a big difference between the writing we do for ourselves and the writing we need to do in our professional lives. Here are a few tips on how to get it right.

Keep it simple. Accountancy is a complex area and the temptation is to write complex sentences to match. Words may not be your thing; if they’re not, then the best idea is to keep sentences simple. There is no problem with starting another one rather than cramming everything into a single 150-word epic without the chance to draw breath. If you’re a recent student or school leaver, forget the instructions you got about finding another adjective to liven things up. Business writing is always best when it’s pared-back.

Don’t get hung up on socalled rules of spelling. Some are plain wrong: “‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ and when the sound is ‘ee’” is a relief to anyone who likes rules, until they look at the word ‘feign’ or ‘foreign’. In fact, there are too many counterexamples for this rule to be very useful.

There are rules about grammar that don’t always work. Finishing a sentence with a preposition can make it read clumsily but, if it makes sense, don’t worry about it – it’s something your audience can deal with. And splitting an infinitive has been frowned on for years but there’s really no problem. Otherwise, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” wouldn’t make sense. If your sentences aren’t structured as subject (who’s doing something), verb (what they’re doing) and object (what they’re doing it to), you can probably simplify them.

Try not to begin a sentence with a subordinate clause (a phrase that supports the rest of the sentence). So “The cat sat on the mat, which was by the sideboard” is better than “By the sideboard, the cat sat on the mat”. The second example makes the sideboard more important than it actually is. Also try to avoid passives. “The cat sat on the mat” is active because the cat is doing the sitting. “The mat was sat on by the cat” turns it around and makes the mat the passive recipient of the action. It’s much weaker.

If you get the chance, read what you’ve written to someone else. If they don’t understand it, it’s not because they’re stupid. Start redrafting. If you can’t do that, change the font or colour on your screen and read your article back to yourself. Your brain will be tricked into processing it as if it were a new document, and might spot inconsistencies and errors, since it looks fresh. Some rules you have to knuckle down and learn. ‘Its’ as a possessive doesn’t take an apostrophe – it’s like ‘his’ and ‘hers’. And the following sentence is correct: “They’re over there with their families.” ‘They’re’, ‘there’ and ‘their’ can cause a lot of unnecessary difficulties.

Guy Clapperton is a freelance journalist and trainer who entered the world of writing about IT and business in 1989. He has written for Accounting Technician, The Guardian, The Times, New Statesman and numerous others publications.

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