Improve Your Business Writing
An interview with Bryan Garner, editor in chief of Black's Law Dictionary and author of the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.
SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Sarah Green. I'm talking today with Bryan Garner, one of the leading authorities on writing, grammar, and style. He's the author of the bestselling reference work, Garner's Modern American Usage, editor-in-chief of Black's Law Dictionary, and author of the very brand-new HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. Bryan, thanks so much for joining us.
BRYAN GARNER: Glad to be here.
SARAH GREEN: So I'd like to start off with a conundrum, which is I think most people think they are good writers. But as an editor who has seen a lot of writing, I think that's kind of like the way most people think they're good drivers. It's just not possible that we're all above average. So what are some suggestions you have for how people might recognize the signs that they might not be as skilled with writing as they might assume they are?
BRYAN GARNER: Well, this is a big, big problem. Some psychologists a few years ago, named Dunning and Kruger, came up with what they call the Dunning-Kruger effect-- or what has since been termed the Dunning-Kruger effect-- which basically finds that people who are the least competent at any skill vastly overrate their own skill levels. And people who are most competent tend to overestimate how good everyone else is.
So people who are really quite poor writers would tend to think that they're much better than they really are and, therefore, be complacent or self-satisfied. And so I think just-- you're right. This self-diagnosis that I need help on this all-important skill is a difficult thing to get people to recognize.
SARAH GREEN: I think we've all had the feeling of dashing off an email and thinking that we've sent a good email, and then maybe we never hear back from the person. Or we get back a reply that it makes it clear that our point did not get across. What would you make of that?
BRYAN GARNER: Well, I think we tend to think if the other person didn't get our message, gee, the other person was reading over hastily. Or somehow the other person's fault, when I really think that the problem is likely that the communication in the first place was ineffective. So I really think it's best to presume the fault is one's own.
It's kind of Dale Carnegie. Dale Carnegie used to say, don't ever say, no, you misunderstood me, but instead to say, I guess I didn't make myself very clear there. And it's a difference in basic attitude toward your reader to accept the fault yourself and try to do better, and try to make your messages unmistakable.
SARAH GREEN: I'd like to talk about writing tone, because it seems like tone is one of the hardest things to get right, especially in a business context. Because some people are trying to sound businesslike and just end up spending brusque. Other people-- and I think I've been guilty of this-- will use emoticons, or maybe a lot of exclamation points, to try to offset the cold nature of a business email. How do you suggest people find a happy medium?
BRYAN GARNER: Well, I try to restrict myself to no more than two exclamation marks in a simple email of, say, one screen of writing. And typically, you don't want an email to go beyond one screen. Just make it an attachment if it's going to be something pretty long.
I use emoticons myself, mostly just a smiley face. I don't use the winky face, just a smiley face. And I think it can actually help defuse a potential misreading-- somebody thinks you're being a little bit curt or snide when you really don't mean it that way.
SARAH GREEN: One of my favorite parts of the book is you have this hilarious passage where you use as many silly business-jargon terms as possible. And you actually have a delightful list of words that you should never use. And I realized that I actually use them all the time. So maybe I'm one of those people who's not as goo a writer as I think I am. Why are those sorts of boilerplate phrases so tempting, and yet also so bad to use?
BRYAN GARNER: Well, what happens is you have these ready-made strings of words that can easily displace thought. And people stop thinking. They just start spouting whatever the current jargon is-- paradigm shift, or mission critical, or incentivize, or harvesting efficiencies, bandwidth used in a kind of figurative, nonliteral, nonelectronic way, go rogue, et cetera.
And there's something to be said for them as a shorthand. But really, the danger is one that George Orwell pointed out in his fantastic essay called "Politics and the English Language." Everyone should read it. You can easily Google it and find it.
But the problem is that if you bandy about a lot of these words all the time, people just stop thinking. And they are certainly not exercising their brains in original thought. But they're also immediately desensitizing the reader from the point that you're trying to make.
SARAH GREEN: Now I'd like to ask about a very specific type of challenge, which is saying no. Because I think judging by the articles that do well on our site, a lot of people would like to learn how to say no, or to be able to say no more often. But I think people hesitate to say no, partly because they just can't think of a way to phrase it. So do you have some advice for people to tactfully and politely decline requests that are coming their way?
BRYAN GARNER: Well, it's a good idea to sandwich the bad news between some happier elements. So an abrupt no right off the bat is typically not the way to do it. But a kind of directness that people feel uncomfortable with is typically fairly effective.
That is, you can say, thank you for sending your request for so-and-so. I'm afraid, however, that I will not be able to do it because of other commitments. Thank you very much. Maybe two thank-yous there, but the basic answer is to decline the request.
I think what you want to avoid doing is puffing it out with a lot of extra words. Please contact me again next month, and maybe my answer will be different, et cetera, et cetera. Don't do that. You want to be direct but friendly. It's important to remain friendly.
SARAH GREEN: I'd like to go back to something you just mentioned, which is avoiding puffing out your message with extra words. And one of the examples you have in the book is if you're ever tempted to write, "prior to the time when" just change it to the word "before." And you had lots of great examples like that. I think that's something I see so often in business writing, especially. It's such a temptation.
BRYAN GARNER: It's a very bad habit, and Americans suffer from it horribly. It's actually something you have to train yourself to do, to say "before" instead of "prior to." But as you say, people will say five words-- "prior to the time when"-- as opposed to "before." And in a way, plain English is no one's mother tongue. It really is something you have to work for.
SARAH GREEN: The other thing I think that contributes to that that I see that you mentioned in the book-- I see this all the time in business writing-- is when people are using nouns instead of verbs. So they'll say "utilization" instead of "use." That's another thing that seems to have somehow slipped into common speech, even though you're just adding lots of extra syllables. You'd think that would be harder instead of easier to simplify the language that way.
BRYAN GARNER: Well, you would think so. But I think a lot of these things are born of insecurity. That is, people somehow have the mistaken notion that if they use a fancy-pants, multisyllable word, as opposed to a very simple, straightforward word, that somehow people will think that they are better educated or smarter, when in fact, it's really just the opposite, especially if you're using a fancy word for a very ordinary idea.
There are some difficult words that actually have no simpler equivalents, and those can be useful. I think, for example, it's a very important thing to have a good vocabulary. But then when it comes to communicating with a broad audience, you really want to choose the smallest word that you possibly can. So good ideas plainly expressed-- sort of in Abraham Lincoln language or Martin Luther King language-- they are much more impressive and ultimately give the reader a much greater impression of the writer.
SARAH GREEN: Now, I think I'm afraid that we're making it sound horribly complicated and difficult. And I know that that is not the way that guide works. So I wanted to step back a little bit and talk about the process you suggest that people follow that actually makes this all very straightforward, which is the madman, architect, carpenter, judge process. Could you just walk us a little bit through those four different roles you suggest?
BRYAN GARNER: People really love this method. It was actually devised by a professor of mine at the University of Texas. Her name is Betty Sue Flowers. And I call it the Flowers paradigm. It's madman, architect, carpenter, judge.
The first step is madman. That's your imagination, your creative impulse. You try, first of all, just to jot down-- and you can do this very briefly. Just jot down in phrases every thing you can think of that you need to mention in this report, this memo, this letter-- whatever it might be.
And just brainstorm. It could be five minutes, could be 10 minutes. But jot them down as quickly as they come to you. And when you're in that phase, typically you're thinking of a lot of ideas.
Then you take a little two- or three-minute break, come back, look at all the things you've written down, and try to think of a sensible order. What is the most important point? What could I put first? And how could I rank these ideas, and how could I organize the whole thing?
It could be as simple as just writing out three basic sentences, three propositions. What are your three main points?
SARAH GREEN: And that's the architect, right?
BRYAN GARNER: That's architect, right. And then you write down the three and you figure out what's the best order for these three. That's really where the architecture comes in.
Then you have a simple outline. And an outline doesn't have to be greatly detailed and intimidating. I was somebody who really never could do outlines until I learned first of all to use madman, architect, carpenter, judge, and outlining became relatively easy.
But once you have those three propositions or the three points that you're going to make, you're going to write out paragraphs in support of them. And write out your ideas more fully, and do that very rapidly. That's the carpenter phase, where you're essentially following the architectural specs, and you are trying to build whatever this document is in some sensible order.
But you don't want to be editing at that point. The last phase is the judge phase. And that's where you go back, and you really look very critically at how you've expressed yourself and ask yourself, how could I say it better?
I think every message you write, you ought to look at how would somebody who is not friendly to me look at this message? Does it look self-serving? Does it look as if I'm not being direct? Does it look as if I'm trying to cover up something, et cetera? I mean, really think about the way you would be coming across to somebody who's unfavorably disposed to you, and you'll end up crafting a better message.
SARAH GREEN: Well, but I think the challenge here-- and just to play devil's advocate a little bit-- is that all of us are facing overflowing inboxes. On my way down here, I had 446 unread emails. And so it's very tempting to say, I'm just going to write back to these as fast as I can without thinking, just to clear the decks, and then to be done with it. And of course, like the old saying goes, this letter will be long because I did not have time to make it short.
So how do you spend enough time that you are being careful, and thoughtful, and useful to people but not over-revise everything to the point where you're just making work for yourself?
BRYAN GARNER: Well, we're all busy. All of us are busy. The point is that somebody with a higher skill level can do much better in a short period than somebody without that much skill. So you cultivate these habits of good writing, really, over the course of a lifetime.
But you begin now, because if you think about it, what does success consistent of? It's preparation plus opportunity. Opportunities are going to come your way, but if you don't make the most of them with your written product, with whatever it might be-- a brochure for whatever you sell, or a memo, or the way you are striking your own superiors within an organization at whether you're going to get a promotion. Almost every little communication you send out, whether it's a brief email or a long report, is a commentary on you and your level of professionalism.
So it does slow you down at first when you start ramping up your skills. You'll get a little bit slower. But it's like redesigning a golf swing. Somebody who swings a club badly and has been swinging that way for years and has a 27 handicap but actually could do much better-- initially, when you make the adjustments, it makes you play a little bit worse. And you think, oh my gosh, this is really slowing me down.
But that's part of acquiring this greater level of skill overall.
SARAH GREEN: Well, Bryan, that's good advice. And I know there's a lot more in the book. Thank you so much for talking about it with us today.
BRYAN GARNER: Well, anybody can learn to write competently. And it's well worth making the effort.
SARAH GREEN: That was Bryan Garner. The book is the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. For more, visit hbr.org.