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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner


I finished this book in January. I recommend this book 3/10.


Why you should read this book:

Good, solid communication is critical for a good leader, and as a leader, you write all day, whether it is via email, Slack, or PowerPoint. In the best HBR fashion, this book is short chapters and a quick read.


Get your copy here.


🚀 The book in three sentences

  1. Think of your busy audience when writing.

  2. Keep it short and get to the point.

  3. Write, review, and then make sure you have time to edit.

🎨 Impressions

There are better books out there on making your writing better.


📝 My notes and thoughts

  • xviii. To express yourself clearly and persuasively, you'll need to develop several qualities:

  • An intense focus on your reason for writing—and on your reader's needs.

  • A decided preference for the simplest words possible to express an idea accurately.

  • A feel for natural idioms.

  • An aversion to jargon and business-speak.

  • An appreciation for the right words in the right places.

  • An ear for tone.

  • P6. Recap:

  • Consider your purpose and your audience before you begin writing, and let these guide both what you say and how you say it.

  • Plainly state the issue you're addressing and what you hope to achieve.

  • Keep your goal in mind: Don't undermine your efforts with a hostile or inappropriate tone.

  • P7. The most important things to realize about all business audiences are these:

  • Your readers are busy—very busy.

  • They have little, if any, sense of duty to read what you put before them.

  • If you don't get to your point pretty quickly, they'll ignore you—just as you tend to ignore long, rambling messages when you receive them.

  • At the slightest need to struggle to understand you, they'll stop trying—and think less of you.

  • If they don't buy your message, you may as well have stayed in bed that day.

  • P8. Your job as a writer, then, is to:

  • Prove quickly that you have something valuable to say—valuable to your readers, not just to you.

  • Waste no time in saying it.

  • Write with such clarity and efficiency that reading your material is easy—even enjoyable.

  • Use a tone that makes you likable so that your readers will want to spend time with you and your message.

  • P9. In his preface to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's Plain English Handbook, Warren Buffet suggests grounding your prose by having a particular reader in mind.

  • When writing Berkshire Hathaway's annual report, I pretend that I'm talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don't need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.

  • P13. Think of writing not as one huge task but as a series of smaller tasks. The poet, writer, and teacher Betty Sue Flowers has envisioned them as belonging to different characters in your brain: MACJ. That stands for Madman-Architect-Carpenter-Judge, representing the phases that a writer must go through:

  • The madman gathers material and generates ideas.

  • The architect organizes information by drawing up an outline, however simple.

  • The carpenter puts your thoughts into words, laying out sentences and paragraphs by following the Architect's plan.

  • The Judge is your quality-control character, polishing the expression throughout—everything from tightening language to correcting grammar and punctuation.

  • 15. How do you keep track of all this preliminary material? In the old days, people used index cards. (I wrote my first several books that way.) But today, the easiest way is to create a rough spreadsheet that contains the following:

  • Labels indicating the points you're trying to support.

  • The data, facts, and opinions you're recording under each point—taking care to put direct quotes within quotation marks.

  • Your sources. Include the title and page number of citing a book or an article. The URL cites an online resource. (When writing a formal document, such as a report, see The Chicago Manual of Style for information on proper sourcing.)

  • P17. Recap:

  • Approach a writing project as a series of manageable tasks using the MACJ method.

  • Use Madman to gather research and other material for the project, diligently keeping track of quotations and sources. And allow more of your best ideas to come early by methodically brainstorming at the beginning of the process.

  • As the Architect, organize the Madman's raw material into a sensible outline. Distill your ideas into three main propositions.

  • In the Carpenter phase, write as quickly as possible—without worrying about perfecting your prose.

  • Finally, assume the role of the Judge to edit, polish, and improve the piece. Do this in several distinct passes, each time focusing on only one element of your writing.

  • P26. Recap:

  • Find your focus by first generating a list of topics to cover.

  • Develop these raw ideas into full sentences and categorize your main points in sets of three.

  • Arrange these sets in a logical order, keeping your reader's needs in mind.

  • P27. To prevent premature fussing, write against the clock. (Creative writers call this speed writing. They often use it as an exercise to get juices flowing.) Allow yourself 5 or 10 minutes to draft each section—the opener, the body, and the closer—and set the timer on your computer or phone to keep yourself honest.

  • P29. Recap:

  • Write your first draft as quickly as you can.

  • Don't get stuck waiting for inspiration. Try giving yourself 5 to 10 minutes for each section when drafting.

  • Resist the urge to perfect as you write. Saving the editing until the draft is finished will keep the Judge from getting in your way.

  • Schedule a time for the Carpenter to work—and when that time comes, begin.

  • If you find yourself stumped, move on to a different section you're more comfortable with and come back to the problem once you've found your flow.

  • P35. Recap:

  • Allow yourself ample time to revise and edit your work.

  • Consider your draft in its entirety. Take a fresh look at your content and structure: Have you said everything you need to—and in the most effective way?

  • Then, edit your work, fine-tuning it to tighten, sharpen, and refine your prose.

  • P44. Simplicity breeds clarity. Strive to use short words and sentences. Over the years, research has confirmed again and again that the optimal average for readable sentences is no more than 20 words. You'll need clarity to hold interest—some very short sentences and some longer ones—but aim for an average of 20 words. With every sentence, ask yourself whether you can say it more briefly.

  • 47. Recap:

  • Put yourself in the reader's shoes to assess your clarity. Better yet, see whether a colleague can accurately summarize the main points of your draft from a quick read-through.

  • Phrase your ideas as plainly and briefly as possible, aiming for an average sentence length of 20 or fewer words.

  • Pave your readers' way with concrete details. Don't try to push them there with abstract assertions.

  • Cultivate your letter writing to improve your writing skills more generally.

  • P50. Struggling to incorporate the right amount of detail to make your summary clear and useful? Write a descriptive outline of your document—summarize each paragraph or section with a sentence that captures the who, what, when, where, why, and how—and try creating your overall summary out of that. Also, keep your readers' needs foremost in your mind.

  • P54. To trim extra words from your documents, try:

  • Deleting every preposition that you can, especially changing April of 2013 to April 2013 and point of view to viewpoint.

  • Replacing every -ion word with a verb if you can. The change was in violation of to violated and provided protection to protected.

  • Replacing is, are, was, and were with stronger verbs where you can. Change was hanging to hung and is indicative of to indicate.

  • P68. Suppose you're sending an email message to give the status of an ongoing project, and it's been some time since the last update. The recipient isn't as immersed in the project as you are and probably has many other things going on. So remind your reader where things stood when you last communicated about the subject, and describe what's happened since then.

  • P70. Recap:

  • Include only the relevant facts.

  • Provide them in chronological order to make it easy for your readers to follow you.

  • Organize your narrative by creating a chronology of relevant events before you write, then string the events together in your draft. But avoid the rote recitation of unnecessary dates.

  • P74. Use a "summary" subhead to point your readers to the document's highlights.

  • P86. At my company, everyone who edits or proofreads must suggest at least two changes per page. No one is allowed to hand something back—even a short letter—and say, "It looks good to me!" People can always make improvements by asking, "What did the writer not say that should have been said? How could the tone be improved? Isn't there a better, shorter way of phrasing one of the ideas?" And so on.

  • P92. Keep a running conversation with your reader. Use the second-person pronoun whenever you can. Translate everything into your language. This applies to citizens over 65 = if you're over 65, this applies to you. It must be remembered that = you must remember. Many people don't realize = perhaps you don't realize. Always write directly to the person you're trying to reach with your message.

  • P97. Recap:

  • Don't overuse I Use we, our, you, and your instead to add a personal touch and appeal to your reader.

  • Make the reader's job easier by avoiding acronyms when you can.

  • P124. Motivate your readers to act on your letter by giving them reasons that matter to them.

  • P129. When writing a problem statement, start with a summary that contains the issue, proposed solution, and reason. Then, in the end, have a "Recommendation."

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