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Book Review: HBR Guide To Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner
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Book Review: HBR Guide To Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: HBR Guide To Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: HBR Guide To Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner

It always seems to come down to commas. Survey professional writing trainers about what clients really want to know, and they always jump right to confusion about comma use. Survey the managers or executives who arrange the training, however, and you’ll hear different concerns: miscommunication in internal documents, unprofessional communication in external emails, and too much time wasted clarifying carelessly composed memos. Both perspectives are important; one addresses the form of communication, while the other addresses the foundational thinking upon which communication is built. Bryan A. Garner’s HBR Guide to Better Business Writing (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) his both approaches in an accessible 120 pages.

Garner begins with why we should care about writing well, saying, “Supervisors, colleagues, employees, clients, partners, and anyone else you communicate with will form an opinion of you from your writing. If it’s artless and sloppy, they may assume your thinking is the same. And if you fail to convince them that they should care about your message, they won’t care. They may even decide you’re not worth doing business with. The stakes are that high.” He then moves into the writing process itself, offering a four-stage method that could alone be a three-day training seminar. Borrowing from a colleague, he calls the stages Madman, Architect, Carpenter, and Judge, beginning with the brainstorming-freewriting stage and ending with the editing stage. It’s the same routine taught by high-school English teachers everywhere, with new labels and well-articulated approaches.

Without good thinking, there is no good writing, and the author spends a large portion of his space on thinking, including good advice on a writer’s organizing his or her thoughts clearly and logically. Similarly, he offers style advice (avoiding alphabet soup, using the active voice, adjusting the writer’s tone based on audience and intention) and includes many examples of business-writing gaffes.

There is plenty of specific guidance on grammar and punctuation, but most of it is properly included in a 90-page appendix, with a dozen “need to know” grammar rules, a dozen “need to know” punctuation rules, and common errors in usage. A sizable section of the appendix is an alphabetized usage guide so the reader can quickly find the answer to questions like, “is it AFFECT or EFFECT?”

The author addresses different forms of writing in the business context, including email, business letters, performance reviews, memos, and reports, with specific examples and cautions. This is the practical, day-to-day material many will most eagerly latch onto, and it’s an understandable response. Yet the executive or manager may want to fold the eagerness into two suggestions the author makes that will contribute to better writing in these practical formats. First, he gives the reader critical advice about reading. Nobody becomes a good writer overnight, or in the space of a hundred pages; it takes time to develop a sense of what good writing is—what it sounds like and how it flows—underlining the value of reading aloud, saying we should “slow down just a little to study the work of pros. This shouldn’t be a chore, and it shouldn’t be squeezed in at the end of a long day. Grab a few spare minutes, over your morning coffee or between tasks, and read closely. Find good material that you enjoy. It could be the Economist or the Wall Street Journal, or even Sports Illustrated, which contains tremendous writing. If you can, read at least one piece aloud each day as if you were a news announcer.”

The other valuable, long-term, foundational advice Garner provides is to establish a culture of editing. In the professional world, asking for help is always encouraged but seldom practiced, especially when it comes to daily communication. Everyone is on a deadline, and everything moves quickly, so bothering the colleague in the next cubicle to proofread an important email before it’s sent seems like an imposition, rather than the collaborative best effort it really is. Garner spends an entire chapter emphasizing the value of accepting feedback graciously and offering it constructively toward establishing such a culture.

There’s a lot of excellent content in what looks like a small book. Resist the temptation to breeze through it, perhaps reading one chapter per day, so its advice has a chance to sink in and so the reader might consider how it might be put into practice. Managers might consider making it a group effort over a longer period of time, establishing daily practice as it appears throughout the course of reading. For the person or company concerned about clear communication, this is a pleasant, substantial guide for thoughtful self-improvement with the tree of comma use and the forest of effective writing.

 

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Book Review: HBR Guide To Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner - Executive Leadership Articles

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