4 tips to become a better corporate writer

Buried in boring prose? Fight dull writing—and start with your own. Here’s your roadmap.

(Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses.)

They’re doing it on purpose. You know it’s true.

Your senior leaders, your pointy-haired bosses, your bombastic colleagues: They all use prose that seems intended to rain boredom on the minds of the employees you’re trying to motivate.

Are these bureaucratic blatherskites, government gasbags, and corporate cacklers getting you down? Fight back by demanding clarity. Start with your own prose.

Robin Farr, communications manager at the Canadian Airline WestJet, has battled corporate-speak in two very different organizations—a government agency and a young company known for its culture and personality.

Here are a few gems of wisdom we culled from her Ragan Training webinar titled “10 tips to become a better corporate writer“:

Ask, ‘What? So what? And what now?’

“Big whoop,” you may have been tempted to tell that bigwig who rushes in with some muddled mandate you’re supposed to write up. Yet maybe it’s not a bad question (stated more politely). It might bring clarity. Or, as Farr puts it, try asking:

  • What? What is it that you’re telling people? This gets to the backbone, the main point of the piece you’re writing.
  • So what? Why should people care? Why do you want them to care? What do you think will make them care?
  • What now? This is the call to action.

“Do you want them to respond to it?” Farr asks. “Do you want them to share the information? Do you simply want them to give it a thumbs-up on your intranet?”

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “10 tips to become a better corporate writer.

Drown your kittens.

Settle down, kitten lovers. It’s a metaphor. We at Ragan.com adore cats—the way they shed cottonwood fluff all over the couch and leave gutted mice in the slippers of favored family members. I imagine Farr does, too.

But if you’re editing prose, your own or others’, bear this phrase in mind. She credits a writing professor for this idea, admitting, “It’s a very grim metaphor.” But when you write the most perfect and magical sentence of all time—your best writing ever—it just might just be a tad overblown.

“Sometimes you just have to highlight that sentence and hit the delete key and wave a fond farewell to that kitten and let it go,” she says.

The admonition to flush felines echoes the famous writing advice, “Kill your darlings.” According to Slate, it has variously been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G.K. Chesterton, Anton Chekov, and Stephen King, who wrote, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” But then Stephen King would say that.

Where did the phrase originate? With some cove named Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said in a 1914 lecture “On Style”:

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

Avoid perilous pitfalls.

These are the lessons we all know well, but in the life of a company cubicle warrior, they can get pounded out of you.

Think about:

  • Length. We’re all guilty. We think our own news is the most important of all time. But don’t suffocate the message by cramming in every bit of information you can. Don’t let your poobahs do it, either.
  • The medium. If you’re writing an email, don’t make it a press release. Figure out how to capture people’s attention in the format you’re writing for.
  • Avoiding corporate-speak. You, more than likely, are not a corporate person. You parasail from Andean peaks, flaunt excessive tattoos, read Sanskrit, make kumquat preserves, are getting qualified as an acupuncturist in case those layoffs come through. Don’t write like an organizational bore.

Use generally accepted writing principles.

If this sounds like something an accountant would say, it’s meant to. “If accountants can have their own generally accepted accounting principles, I think we can have generally accepted writing principles,” Farr says.

This means using:

  • Short sentences.
  • Strong verbs.
  • Sharp nouns.
  • Adverbs and adjectives sparingly.

These things are harder to do than they sound, because we all have our habits.

“We tend to default to the same writing style,” she says. “We tend to default to the same words, especially the same verbs, to describe what’s going on.”

Go on. Grab those kitties by the scruff of the neck. Ask anyone. They’re not as adorable as you think. The river awaits.



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