E-Writing: Tips for Online Communication

Communication makes a competitive difference in an organization's success. Customers, clients, and prospective business partners often check out your Web site before they even phone or fax you. If your words on the Web site don't build your credibility or communicate what potential clients need to know, you'll never get a chance to connect with them by phone or in person.

Here are a few tips to make writing easier and faster, and the results more effective:

Strive for a style somewhere between stuffed-shirt writing and T-Shirt writing. The trend in today's e-commerce falls between the two extremes: Like our work clothes, the preferred writing style has become business casual. And just as the business-casual dress code has some people stumped, so has the business-casual writing style. Those who write in a stuffy style bury the meat of their ideas in passive verbs. They select weak sentence subjects. They bury key actions. They add unnecessary qualifiers and intensifiers to vague abstractions. Finally, they drape their ideas in trite, verbose statements. On the other extreme are writers who send e-mail that could pass for a T-shirt slogan. They choose aggressive words, without tact. They make up words when they can't think of the correct words. They ramble on and on, without sorting the main ideas and details from the irrelevant fluff. They misspell words, omit punctuation, and write incomplete sentences.

If you don't have something to say, don't say anything. Not all e-mails deserve responses. On the street, when someone you know speaks to you, etiquette requires that you return the greeting. And if you're from some particularly friendly part of the country, people greet and return greetings—and even engage in small talk over an extended period—with total strangers. Not so with e-mail. Don't reply to a message unless you have something to add.

Check it, but don't be chained to it. Many people have become almost chained to their desks or laptops by the e-mails popping onto their screens. The compulsion stems from the confusion between the urgent and the important. Few e-mails in any given week are urgent, requiring an immediate response. Instead of being constantly distracted, let the e-mails pile up and check them only once or twice a day. As a result, you can stay informed on what's happening without breaking your concentration on more important tasks.

Try to avoid rambling. Just as the penny is the basis for our monetary system, the sentence is our basic unit of thought. For the most part, one sentence should convey only one thought. If the e-mail wasn't all that interesting to read the first time, imagine forcing people to slog through it a second time to try to figure out what you meant to say.

Don't give knee-jerk responses. E-mail's greatest benefit can also be its greatest drawback. When we sit down to the keyboard "to do e-mail," our mindset is typically to get through it all and get back to business.

That mindset generates knee-jerk reactions to others' questions, solicitations of opinions, requests, and recommendations. We nix a promising idea because it had a few glitches that we didn't take the time to consider seriously. We turn down a request to provide information because our day was already overscheduled. We offer a make-do explanation or assessment rather than a reasoned one because speed, rather than thoroughness, was the goal. Be mindful of speed as a potentially negative habit.

Tune into the tone of directives. Brevity is a breeding ground for brusqueness. Some-times an explanation adds a buffer to an otherwise cold, foreboding, or intimidating tone.

Excerpted from E-Writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication by Dianna Booher (Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books). Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, which offers communication training: written, oral, interpersonal, and gender. To contact her, call (817) 868-1200.