Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Adina Rishe Gewirtz and How to Say It: Business Writing That Works

Today our guest blogger is Adina Rishe gewirtz. For 15 years, Adina has been helping struggling writers get organized. Trained as a journalist, and with a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland at College Park, she spent her early career freelancing, and then created The Writer's Roadmap based on techniques pioneered by two-time Pulitzer prize winner Jon Franklin. Those techniques were designed to help professional writers structure and execute a well-crafted piece of writing. By translating them into tools even non-professionals could use, Ms. Gewirtz quickly discovered the vast need for such a system by those struggling to write for work or school.

By the mid 1990s, she was teaching writing seminars for accounting giant Arthur Andersen LLP. After 2001, she returned to her own writing and again worked with high school and college students. Her recent book, How To Say It: Business Writing That Works (Prentice Hall, 2007), is available at Amazon.com or area bookstores. Another book, The Student Writer's Roadmap, is in the works for struggling writers in college and high school.

You can visit her website at www.writersroadmap.com.

I asked Adina to share with us what are the three biggest mistakes people make in business writing and how they can correct them. You'll find her response below:

The 3 Biggest Mistakes People Make In Business Writing and How to Correct Them

By Adina Rishe Gewirtz

Panicking, working blind, and rushing – these are the three biggest mistakes people make when they set out to write at work. And they can be solved with the following three pieces of advice: calm down, open your eyes, and think.

Put that way, it looks like you take about the same route to good business writing that you do to inner peace. And in a way, you do. But I hope people don’t start laying out the yoga mats on the office floor just yet. Instead, what I try to get my students and readers to understand is that if you know what often goes wrong in business writing, you’ll be able to fix it.


When asked to write something, people tend to react with a single, strong emotion: fear. “What will I say?” “How will I get it all down?” “What if I sound like an idiot?”

A great life lesson that works, just as well, when writing on the job: Take it one step at a time. The writing process is just that: a process. It has its distinct steps. You don’t start out with a finished piece, you start out by brainstorming, gathering research, and writing everything down. Then you evaluate what you’ve got with a keen eye to what you need to convey. What gets in the way of thought? Panic. So seek calm through focus, specifically by focusing on three important questions:

1. Who is my audience?
2. What do they want to know?
3. What do I need to tell them?

When you begin breaking things down into smaller chunks – especially questions that require concrete answers – the task becomes manageable and your heart-rate slows right there. Deep breathing never hurts either.

Working Blind

Even the most social person in the universe tends to forget, when staring at the blank screen, that there’s someone on the other side. That person is a reader, an audience, and writing is as much a social activity as talking – just one that comes with a built-in delay. Forgetting who is on the other side of that screen – who will be reading what you write – is a big reason for difficulty in every type of writing, from a simple memo or email to a complex business plan, performance review, or report.

The first question a writer needs to ask him or herself when sitting down to begin the process is “who is my audience?” – question 1, above. Thinking about other people isn’t just a relationship skill; it helps shape the piece of writing. In business writing, readers are almost always a known quantity. They’re a boss or client, or both. Even when the reader is a category of person – home-buyers for example – the writer needs to think about what those people hope to get out of what’s being written. What information are they looking for? What do they already know? What questions are they asking? Discovering the answers to these questions through research and a good amount of thought is the most important step in the writing process.


Probably the most common mistake in business writing is thinking the last step comes first. Too many people sit down and expect to write a draft filled with fancy words, when what they really need to remember is that writing is first and foremost about ideas. The most obvious writing errors – confusing, disorganized memos, jargon-filled reports that say, in the end, nothing at twice the normal length – come from the unfortunate misconception that writing is about vocabulary. Write eloquently, sure. But don’t even think of putting down sentences until you’ve gotten the logic of your argument down. Follow these steps and you should have no problem:

First, know your audience. Second, figure out what they want to know. Third, research and brainstorm the answers. Fourth, lay out your ideas, evidence, and information in a logical pattern. Fifth, write it all out in full, beautiful sentences and paragraphs. I explain this process in much greater detail in my book, How to Say It: Business Writing That Works, which offers readers ten concrete steps to great writing, from idea to polished draft. But this is the general thrust of the process. It may not be the route to complete inner peace, but slowing down and taking writing in steps – the right steps – is the beginning of great business writing.

Synopsis: How to Say It: Business Writing That Works takes the gut-wrenching pain out of the writing process by breaking it down into ten easy-to-follow steps. Adina Gewirtz teaches that writing is first of all a thinking and organizational skill, and that if writers learn how to ask themselves the right questions, understand their audience and group ideas and information before they try to find the right words, the words will come.

In a funny, light style that makes the learning painless, Adina Gewirtz teaches her ten-step system, then shows how to put that system to work in various business writing tasks, from a letter to a report to a proposal. The book covers even notoriously hard writing tasks like audits and performance reviews, and teaches writers how to make even a reluctant audience a willing one.

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