Rescuing business prose from jargon and longwindedness

Business men and women these days frequently seek consultants who can help them polish their speaking abilities, their manners, and their prose. Ellen Roddick is one of the professional consultants who has recently set out to help rescue business prose from pretentiousness, jargon, and general long-windedness.

''My professional life,'' she says, ''has always been centered on communication, including my early stint as an actress. But being surrounded by business men and women all my life, I more recently became fascinated by the problems of written communications in business. I discovered that inexpert writing costs American business an estimated $1 billion each year in alienated customers, lost contracts, and wasted time.''

She learned also that a recent survey of top executives from Fortune's list of 500 companies ranked communication skills as among the most important that a business leader could have. A survey of businesses conducted by the New York City Public Schools revealed that 50 percent of the companies surveyed reported that their managers were unable to write paragraphs free of grammatical and spelling errors. That is when she decided that help - her help - was at hand.

So last year, with three successful fiction and nonfiction books and six years of regular monthly magazine columns to her credit, as well as a BA degree in English literature from Wellesley College, she decided to launch her own advice firm. As a consultant, she wanted to share the dividends of what she had learned in her own writing experience - namely brevity, clarity, a natural style , and a commitment to self-editing, revising, and rewriting.

In doing research for her seminar course and for her new book called ''Writing that Means Business: A Manager's Guide'' (New York: MacMillan, $10.95) , the recurring theme of all Miss Roddick's conversations with top executives boiled down to ''Please help save my time. Tell people to put what they want or need right up front, say it in simple language, and keep their message to one page if that is possible.''

Most business leaders she interviewed bemoaned the state of foggy writing in business communications. Unfortunately, she says, many people learn their bad writing habits while they are in college where they hope to impress professors with their big words, many sentences, and long papers.

Miss Roddick, who now has several Fortune 500 corporations as clients, finds that people in her training seminars are not making many grammatical errors. ''Their chief trouble,'' she says, ''is in knowing how to give their ideas proper weight. People seem to find it difficult to organize their thoughts in such a way that they can in simple language emphasize first their main point and then their subordinate points.''

She not only shows them how to prepare their material for such an orderly presentation, but she encourages them to set up pages that are visually easy to read by leaving lots of white space and using bullets, numbers, indentations, subtitles, and boxes.

The most common errors she has found in her work are the habits of obfuscating language, disguising thoughts in convoluted language, and using big words when smaller ones would serve much better.

Miss Roddick designed her workshops to teach basic writing strategies and skills having to do with composition, sentence structure, logic, and proper use of language. ''One of the things I had to learn, however, was how to present material so that people would actually write better and not just know how to write better.''

She learned that while teaching conveys information, it often does not get the results that corporations want. ''That is why we now say 'training' instead of 'teaching.' Every time we explore a new technique in a seminar, we all do an exercise that illustrates it. We go from writing to theory and back again to writing. We discuss, take questions, exchange papers, read our examples, and go over the theory if that seems required. In the end, people find that they really can write in a conversational tone and say what they want to say without trying to make it sound too important.''

Miss Roddick also sees strengths in those she trains. ''I am particularly touched by the fact that so many people care enough about written language to want to write better and that they are willing to put the required amount of hard work into it. I find it encouraging that most of them realize that their images and their careers will be enhanced if they handle the language well.''

Miss Roddick's consulting firm, located in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is aptly called ''Write/Action.'' Being married to Walter W. Meade, president of Avon Books, has been a big help, she admits. ''He not only knows a lot about business , but, while I was developing my material, he shared many ideas and resources with me.''

''Good writing in business,'' the author sums up, ''carries a direct and precise message to the reader. The best writing is, therefore, clear, candid, concise, coherent, complete, concrete, convincing, constructive, and conversational.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.