Editing Business Writing for Precision and Clarity
Good business writing is clear and succinct. There are no unwanted words. The meaning is delivered with precision. The right tone, correct usage, and elimination of jargon strengthen the message. Rene Cappon, former managing editor of the Associated Press, provides three main rules for business and news writing:
- Don’t waste words and space
- Don’t use abstract, vague words
- Don’t add unnecessary qualifiers
Editing business writing aims to enhance the precision and clarity of business materials. Here at TEC, we edit a wide range of business magazines, annual reports, research reports, B2B marketing materials, brochures, and websites. My approach to editing these materials is to read through the document three times, if the schedule and budget allows.
On the first read, I get a sense of the content and spot obvious errors and awkward sentences. Because the writing is so precise, awkward sentences are more obvious. While I correct the obvious errors, I flag awkward sentences so I can come back to them on the second read.
The second read reveals inconsistencies in spelling and capitalization, errors in punctuation, misused words, and so on.
On the third read, I can read the edit once again to ensure for flow and make sure the editing corrections are made clearly for the author. It is important that the corrections be presented as neatly and coherently as possible.
If I am editing a short document (say a 5-page document), I proofread through the document completely. For a longer document (an annual report or research report), I do a first and second read section by section.
To flag an awkward sentences or query a word that doesn’t seem quite right, I write short and succinct comment to the author. For example, “When you say xxx, do you mean xxx or could it read xxx?”
Finally, I check the table of contents to ensure the titles correspond to the section headings and that page numbers match up.
Tools for Editing
How to edit depends on whether you are editing a PDF with Adobe or a Word document using track changes. With a PDF, I use the highlight / pop-up note method for quick fixes and queries. For bigger problems – missing text or incorrect order – I use text boxes to direct the author’s attention to the problem. Likewise, if footers are wrong, I use a text box to flag the error.
Applying House and Business Styles
Style is the fine-tuning applied to the writing. It is applied to the spelling of words (American or Canadian), the use of punctuation (Oxford/serial comma or not), the use of numbers (use digits at 10), insertion of an em-dash or an en-dash (whichever is preferred).
Business styles are often dictated by specific style guides. The Canadian Press Style Guide and Caps and Spelling specify preferred ways of spelling, using numbers, and so on. These are widely accepted style applications for many business communications.
Then there are specific spellings of words that a company will want used the same way in all of its documents. These make up a company’s house style. For example, does the company prefer policy maker, policy-maker, or policymaker? Does it want Board of Directors capitalized?
These details are recorded on a style sheet. A style sheet is organized by sections: choice of spelling and dictionary being used (Canadian Oxford or Merriam-Webster’s), punctuation, numbers, capitalization, italicized words, then word spellings. The style sheet is an essential tool for maintaining consistency throughout all the documents a company produces. (Click for a sample style sheet.)
Correct Common Errors
Here are some common errors I look for on the first read.
If Canadian spelling is being used, I will correct word spellings with a single “l” or missing “u” or using “er”: labour (not labor), travelling (not travelling), centre (not center).
I will check that the serial comma is consistent: The vendor, contractor, and banker had a first meeting.
Are double quotations used consistently? Often writers switch between single and double quotation marks, when doubles need to be used consistently. (For more on this, see our recent blog, “Double Quotations vs. Single Quotations.”)
Are quotation marks the same style? If it is a straight quotation mark (going straight up and down), it needs to be changed to a curly quotation (curling inwards).
Check for correct hyphenation of compound adjectives: third-party vendor, lower-cost services, business-related strategies.
Contracts are tricksters, and can easily be missed. If the possessive is meant, be sure that it’s is its; you’re is your, peoples’ is people’s.
Confusable spellings and usage are also common errors: affect/effect, dependant/dependent, weather/whether, wreck/wreak.
Watch for Consistency
On the second read, I watch for inconsistencies that creep in. Consistency ties in to the style being applied, and especially the style determined by the company.
Is the company name spelled consistently throughout? Is Board of Directors capitalized throughout?
Are numbers in digits after ten? Spelling out of numbers creeps in to text, so that “twelve employees” should be “12 employees.”
Is the expression of currency consistent? Is it U.S.$200,000 or US $200,000? Is it 65% of 65 percent (or per cent)?
Is data used as a singular or plural noun? Either is correct, but it must be consistent.
Are acronyms and capitalizations consistent? If Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is introduced early in the document, is it being consistently referred to in later references?
Tackling Awkward Sentences
Once the nitty-gritty is taken care of, I go back and tackle the awkward sentences I might have flagged on the first and even second reads.
For example, the author writes: “Security has reference relating to Authority requirements for CCTV, fencing/ walls, etc, for their facilities.”
I query: “Could this read: Security has the necessary reference documents relating to authority requirements for CCTV, fencing/ walls, etc., for their facilities.”
Tackling Incorrect Word Usage
When I come across a word that doesn’t seem quite right, I will refer to BusinessDictionary.com for its meaning and usage.
For example, if the author is using the term “offshoring,” I might wonder if “outsourcing” would be more effective if the focus is on contracting out certain activities rather than relocating the entire company.
So, if the sentence reads: “Should we offshore printing to India for this project?” I might phrase the query as: “Would outsourcing work better here if the meaning is to contract out that particular function?”
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