On the Job: Why you should have listened in grammar class

Think about one of the dozens of e-mails you sent in this past week at work.

Did any of them have typos? Spelling errors?

STORY: Spelling still matters[1]

MORE: Anita Bruzzese’s column index[2]

Was each of them concise and clear? Did they convey that you’re a capable professional?

Sending e-mails every day has become as routine to most workers as brushing their teeth. But that casualness also can mean that we send messages riddled with errors and poorly written, say Brenda Greene and Helen Cunningham, authors of The Business Style Handbook.[3]

With the explosion of texts, instant messages, social media posts and blogs, they say that the writing rules first outlined in their book 10 years ago are more important now than ever. They recently updated their book and re-connected with many of the Fortune 500 employers they interviewed years ago to find that no matter the profession, employees are writing more.

“I think probably the standards for writing have gotten higher. You have writing that is available online in real time, and it really raises the bar. It puts more pressure on people,” Cunningham says.

The problem with the pressure to write faster and more often is that workers can fall into bad habits that can have real bottom-line consequences, they say. Failing to verify your facts in an e-mail could cost your company money or jeopardize a deal.

For your own career, the stakes also can be high. If you send an e-mail or write a report that has grammatical errors or isn’t clearly written, bosses may believe that you’re not a good representative of the company or say you’re not ready for a promotion.

“Credibility is so essential,” Greene says. “You’ve got to be careful with what you write.”

If you believe that you need to improve your writing, here are some tips from Greene and Cunningham:

• Pause before hitting “send.” Are you sure your e-mail is professional, accurate and free of spelling errors?

While it’s one thing to fire off a friendly e-mail to a co-worker about grabbing lunch, always keep in mind who is receiving your e-mail — and who it might be forwarded to.

“Anything you write can be sent to different people, including your boss’s boss,” Greene says. “You never know where it could end up, and you don’t want anything in writing that could hurt your company’s reputation or your own.”

• Watch the fat thumbs. While it can be difficult to type without mistakes on your smartphone, you must try to make messages as error free as possible.

Errors from smartphones can seem more glaring when the recipient opens it along with other business e-mail, Cunningham says.

• Curb the buzzwords. While half of the Fortune 500 communication professionals that Greene and Cunningham polled expressed great dislike of buzzwords in communications, they often can be useful when you’re establishing rapport with a colleague.

Use them sparingly and don’t use them as a crutch. Instead, write more clearly to get a point across, Greene says.

• Be inclusive. If your company does business internationally, be conscious of whether you are using phrases or terms that may not translate clearly to those outside the United States.

“When you become too colloquial, you run the risk of being misunderstood,” Greene says.

• Take time to proof your writing. “Look at the top people in your organization. You don’t see the CEO sending out messages to the board or to the public that has a mistake,” Cunningham says.

“That standard being set by the CEO should be adhered to by everyone in that organization,” she says.

Read over your e-mails before sending to make sure they’re well done, and ask a colleague to review important messages or reports. Never put anything in writing that you would not want to see on the front page of a newspaper, Cunningham says.

• Educate yourself. It’s not OK to guess about the proper name of an organization or whether a word should be capitalized.

The authors provide a number of good resources to ensure that you get it right, including The Associated Press Stylebook[4] and The Yahoo! Style Guide[5].

Greene says employers they talked to for the book agree that good communication skills are critical for moving up the career ladder. But those who aren’t comfortable with writing shouldn’t panic.

“There is lots of help available,” she says. “The resources are out there to make anyone a better writer.”

Anita Bruzzese[6] is author of 45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy … and How to Avoid Them, www.45things.com[7]. Twitter: @AnitaBruzzese[8].

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