Review of the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner

The Gist

Think of this book as The Elements of Style for business writing. It will be useful to writers in need of a tune-up or a compact reference work. Buy it.

General Comments and Organization

If your freshman writing classes were designed exclusively to prepare you for business, you would probably use this book. Garner writes with authority–and he is one–but backs up his advice with how it applies to real-world business scenarios. Then, he ends each chapter with a quick, bullet-point recap of the takeaways.

The book is divided into four major sections, plus appendices:

The first section is about getting started, moving from purpose (“Know why you’re writing”) and audience analysis (“Understand your readers”) all the way through the first round of editing. This is a section I’d turn to if I had trouble getting started. One unique approach to writing Garner recommends is the Flowers Paradigm,” which asks you to become a different character for each part of the writing process

  1. The Madman generates ideas quickly and spontaneously with no inhibitions.
  2. The Architect then imposes order on the madman’s ideas, creating a basic blueprint/organization.
  3. The Carpenter begins to fill in the details, crafting sentences and paragraphs but does not nitpick every last detail.
  4. Finally, the Judge comes in at the end to make sure every last detail about word choice, punctuation, and so on is correct.

It’s an interesting idea, and the key idea is that these tasks must remain separate;  you can’t have the Judge coming in every five minutes slowing down your progress. Don’t let the Judge butt in when you’re still building.

In the second section, Garner turns to helping you improve specific skills that will help you write more effectively. His advice on clarity, using correct grammar, and getting feedback is great, but my favorite by far is is “Bizspeak Blacklist”–a list of overused cliches that he recommends avoiding if possible.

Garner uses a “NOT THIS, BUT THIS” structure of examples throughout the book, and it truly shines in this section. For example, “in light of the fact that” (NOT THIS) simply means “because” (BUT THIS), and I think Garner presents a good case for using plain language.

The third section is designed to help you write more effectively by setting the right tone. Nobody wants to bore their readers (this is why people recommend you avoid passive voice, by the way).

Section Four includes practical advice about writing better e-mails, business letters, memos, reports, and performance appraisals. I found this section particularly helpful as a consultant, and I immediately corrected some of my bad e-mail habits as a result.

Finally, the Appendices are so good I expect to refer to them often. “A Dozen Grammatical Rules You Absolutely Need to Know” is extraordinarily helpful for those who may need a diagnostic, and “Some Dos and Don’ts of Business-Writing Etiquette” offer direct commandments worth reading from time to time. I’ll conclude with one of my favorites–

“Don’t let the passage of time stop you from writing to express congratulations, gratitude, condolences, or whatever other sentiment your instincts say you ought to express.”

–a much nicer way of saying “Better late than never.”

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