Revising for Readability

Revising With a Purpose

To achieve a clear, concise business style, revision is essential. Word processors make that revision much easier and quicker than was true a decade ago. Get to your keyboard as soon as possible to create a draft. Then use the following tips to revise.

 1. Give each idea its own sentence. Look at your sentences and isolate the actor  and action. Be sure the actor and action are clear. 2. Be careful not to stack multiple prepositions in a sentence. Revise by making  some into adjectives or possessives (ex. computer of the department =  department’s computer) and eliminating all that are not necessary. Clear  sentences generally do not have more than two prepositional phrases in a row.

3. Use strong, single verbs. Instead of is representative of, prefer represents.

4. Prefer the active voice.

Passive: Excessive system pressure is released by relief valves.
Active: Relief valves release excessive pressure in the system.Passive:  The marketing plan was developed by Marsha Drew.
Active:  Marsha Drew developed the marketing plan.

Note that passive sentences often obscure or deemphasize the agent or actor in the sentence. They put emphasis on the object of the action (the release, the plan)  rather than clearly state who is doing what to whom. This is a common strategy in scientific prose, but not often desirable in business writing.Though there are times when you will not know or not want to name the actor or agent, in most everyday communications you will. Prefer the active voice; use passive advisedly.

 5. Use a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths. Use short sentences to emphasize factual information. Complex sentences indicate relationships and lend themselves to more complex ideas. A style of all short sentences will be choppy. A style of all long, winding sentences will likely be unread.

Make paragraphs as short as possible so that the ideas are easily retrieved.  When the topic is complex and needs a long paragraph, be aware of other  strategies such as listing and bolding or italicizing important words.

Characteristics of Professional Writing — The 5 Cs

Though all good writing arises from careful use of the language and attention to audience, purpose and content, writing in a Professional context emphasizes a correct, concise, clear, complete and courteous style. Review and revise your writing in light of the following five attributes.


Correct writing is completely free of errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling (see the Business Writer’s Handbook or another handbook of your choice, and/or the instructor for help). The writing is always in complete sentences unless there is a good reason to be elliptical (lists of items are one such exception).

Correct writing uses the appropriate forms for business (memo = internal communication, letter = external communication), and understands the conventions of these forms.

All information must be checked and double-checked for accuracy. This includes not only such items as specifications, prices and quantities but also dates, places, times, etc.

CONCISEConcise writing has as much meaning as possible in as few words as possible. In professional writing the goal is one thought per sentence unless there is a good reason to combine ideas. Short sentences are occasionally varied with longer sentences to express greater complexity or add interest.

Wordy–It is possible that a misapplication of required procedures could result in a premature shut down of the system and that could be inadvertent.
More Concise–Not following required procedures could cause a premature shutdown of the system.

See Richard Lanham’s Revising Business Prose for specific revision techniques.
See Table 1.1 for several business expressions which can be stated more economically.

Table 1.1 Expressions Which Can Be More Concise

Wordy  Concise
Due to the fact that Because
It has come to my attention that Omit: Instead, begin with the
information itself.
In the event that  If
Inquired as to Asked about
You are hereby instructed to  Please
Until such time as When
We are in receipt of We received
At this point in time Now, currently

CLEARClear writing has only one meaning. It is as unambiguous as possible, free of innuendo and uses jargon sparingly. When jargon is used it is defined.

Ambiguous: Like its predecessors, the section manager found the monthly report incomplete.
Clear:  The section manager found the monthly report, like its predecessors, incomplete.
Ambiguous: Call me any evening except Tuesday after 7 o’clock.
Clear:  Call me any evening after 7 o’clock, except Tuesday.

COMPLETEProfessional messages must contain all important information. Nothing is more costly and frustrating than writing a second letter or memo to include information that should have been in the original. Think in terms of the reporter’s questions–Who? What? Where? When? Why? If you have answered all these, chances are your reader has enough information.

Incomplete–All department heads will meet at 2:00 p.m. on Monday. Plan to spend the entire afternoon at the meeting.
Complete–All department heads will meet at 2:00 p.m. on Monday, September 12, in Conference Room B. Please make plans to stay until 5:00 p.m., since we will discuss implementation of fourth-quarter objectives.

Being complete also means that the problem or concern has been thoroughly analyzed, again using the five questions posed above along with cause/ effect, problem/solution considerations.

COURTEOUSCourteous writing treats the reader with respect and kindness. In addition to remembering words like please, thank you, and congratulations, the good business writer takes the reader’s place and formulates a message to which the reader can respond positively (the “you” approach).

Discourteous– Our records indicate that your account is $103 over your credit line of $800. Stop using your credit card until your balance is below your credit line. . .You should pay the overage in a lump sum payment.

Courteous–Our records show that your account is $103 over your credit line of $800. Please wait until your balance is below your credit line before using your credit card again. By eliminating this overage in a lump sum payment you will retain your charge privileges and good credit standing with us.

Courteous writing is also inclusive or bias-free (see the Guide to Inclusive Language).

Courteous writing, the “you” approach, tries to elicit a positive response, but NEVER LIES, in order to do so. Business writing is polite, but not hypocritical. Professionals depend on honesty and ethical conduct in each other; writers are no exception.


Guide to Inclusive Language

The language of a professional document should be inclusive. This means the writer is sensitive to the audience and realizes audiences include people of all races and ethnic backgrounds, the disabled and both genders. Below you will find some cautions and strategies to help you avoid a bias in your language.

 1. Avoid identifying people by race or ethnic origin unless such information is  relevant.

Geraldine Ferraro, Italian-American candidate for Vice President in 1984 . . .
Geraldine Ferraro, candidate for Vice President in 1984 . . .

 2. Avoid mentioning disability unless it is pertinent. When it is pertinent, present  the whole person, not just the disability by unobtrusively mentioning the  limitation. Be careful not to equate the person and the disability.

Though blind, Henry has no trouble doing his job.
Henry does his job well; his blindness is not a problem.

3. Avoid words and constructions that stereotype the sexes, or mentioning gender  when it is not relevant.
A. Words denoting humanity.
During the middle ages the word man came to mean not only all people but also adult males. Recent studies have shown that man is currently associated more with a male human than with humanity as a generic term. The fact that many commonly used words contain the word man, thereby limiting their reference, is a problem, but it is not insoluble. Below you will find some common substitutes.

Instead of . . .  Use . . . 
mankind human race, people, humanity
manpower labor, workers, work force
chairman chair, head, presiding officer, coordinator

 B. Occupational terms

Instead of . . .  Use . . .
businessman business manager, business person
salesman sales representative, sales clerk
policeman police officer
fireman fire fighter
 mailman. mail carrier, postal employee

C. Avoid unnecessary reference to gender.

Instead of . . .  Use. . .
waitress server
stewardess flight attendant
 male nurse nurse

D. Generic Pronouns. 
Pronouns are a problem because “he” has long been used to refer to both males and females. Here are some ways to avoid this outdated use.
1. Pluralize

Unacceptable: The average American drinks his coffee black.
Preferable:Most Americans drink their coffee black.

2. Use he or she or his or hers or he/she.

* Caution: This tactic cannot be overused or it is distracting to the  reader. If the text needs many such pronouns it might be better to  alternate pronouns by using he in one paragraph, she in the next,  etc.

E. Salutations.
When greeting an audience you do not know, do not assume the reader is male. Dear Sir, and Gentlemen, once common salutations in the business world, are now rare.

Instead, titles can be used–Dear Personnel Director, Dear Customer Services Manager, etc.

  • When no title or role is known, then a descriptive address is possible–Dear Subscriber, Dear Conference Participant, etc.
  • For persons whose full names are known, use the full name–Dear John Jones, Dear Jane Smith.
  • If the first name is not known and an official title (Dr., Rev.,) is not available, then use either Mr. or Ms. The title Mr. does not refer to marital status; neither does Ms. Marital status should not be part of a person’s professional title.
  • If the person is female and you personally know she prefers to be called Miss or Mrs., then that is the way to address her; otherwise, current business practice dictates Ms.

F. Treat both sexes in a parallel manner. 

  • If you use Christopher Brown’s full name, then Ms. Knollwood should be Beth Knollwood.
  • If only last names are used, then it is Brown and Knollwood, not Brown and Beth. If using courtesy titles (Ms., Mr.), use them for both sexes, not just one.
  • Also avoid belittling titles for either gender (dear, honey, etc.), or unnecessary descriptions for one sex only (references to hair color, clothing etc.).

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