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    A Self-Serving (or is it Selfserving) Perspective

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    How correct should you be in your business writing? The safe answer, of course, is perfectly correct, especially if you are of a certain age, and attended Catholic grade schools. Correctness, according to most nuns, was next to godliness. But times have changed, as have Catholic schools (where have all the nuns gone?) - and so has the way we communicate.

    We speak face to face, we text message, we tweet, we e-mail, we blog, we write letters, we write reports.… If you put the forms of communication on a continuum, the honest answer to the opening question might be, "That depends on the form."

    You can be a little ungrammatical when your communication is more spontaneous than deliberate, more informal than formal; but as you move up the scale, correctness becomes more of an issue.

    Do we expect error-free conversations in text messages? Of course not. What would constitute an error when texting, anyway? How about in e-mail? An error here or there in a message to a colleague shouldn't be cause for concern, whereas errors in an e-mail to a client or customer should be. How about a departmental memo? By all means, take care whenever your writing is exposed to multiple readers.

    But why this concern about correctness in the first place? Does it really matter if you misplace an apostrophe or use to in one sentence when you really mean too. Not if you ask me. But you'd get a different answer from the "correctness Nazis" out there, individuals who thinks that the world begins and ends with perfect punctuation and grammar.

    Some people say that it's a matter of clarity - a missing or misplaced comma can change the meaning of a sentence, or a shift in verb tense may cause serious confusion. There are plenty of books that address slip ups like these. Eats, Shoots and Leaves is one. This #1 New York Times bestseller has the following subtitle: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

    The title, of course, shows how a misplaced comma can completely skew an idea. It should read "Eats Shoots and Leaves," describing an animal's eating habits. But if you put this idea within the context of a complete text, the mistake becomes far less an issue. We would get the message. Am I condoning this error? No, I'm just saying that these things happen, and they seldom deprive the reader of following a writer's line of thinking.

    Other people say that the issue is a matter of respect - that providing clear, accurate copy shows that you truly value the reader's time and interest. It's hard to dispute this argument. But no one in his or her right mind would send out an important letter or share a quarterly report without making sure that the copy is clear and correct, even if that means having a professional copyeditor check the writing for errors. (Remember the communication continuum.)

    The best argument in my mind is completely self-serving. You want your letters and reports to be clean because it makes you look good. Image may not be everything in the business world, but it's right up there. Making a good impression in your writing may help you secure a job, and later, help you advance your career. For this reason alone, pay attention to correctness.

    Final Thoughts
    There is a time and place for everything, including checking for errors, and that time is late in the development of a piece of writing. Focus on your ideas first. Once you're satisfied that you have something worthwhile to say, then carefully attend to the accuracy of your writing. It makes no sense to do otherwise.

    "We will sell no wine before its time" was once a successful slogan in the wine industry. Turn that a bit - "I will not check my writing for errors before it's time" - and the slogan will serve you well as an editing reminder.

    - Dave Kemper