Business writing instructor Ben Shank shares tips on polishing your professional image through cleaner prose

The marketplace of ideas has become increasingly noisy and overcrowded. Ideas that are clear and concise are the most likely to break through, so says University of Minnesota business writing instructor Ben Shank, president of Writing Consultants, Inc. Shank, who teaches Technical Writing and Writing Policies and Procedures for CCAPS, has some advice on how to make your ideas stand out and better drive your personal agenda.

Why should professionals bother improving their written communications?
Improving writing boosts productivity and protects professional images.

Which writing error is your biggest pet peeve?
Lack of clarity that makes readers guess what the communication is saying. Such obscurity often stems from people not having or taking the time to edit.

What’s the one piece of business writing most people do every day that needs improvement?
Email is probably the place that’s most rich with opportunities to improve. One email problem: vague subject lines. Solution: make subject lines specific, concise, and likely to make readers want to open the email.

Vague email subject line: Where should we go after that meeting
Specific subject line: Next steps after 4/9/2018 meeting

What are the elements of a well-written introductory paragraph?
Of all your questions, this one is may be the most important. Why? Because of all the key writing skills, the hardest by far is to craft an opening that is concise, clear, and compelling.

A good introduction grabs the attention of the intended audience with an intriguing question, anecdote, or image. It briefly states what the issue is and why it matters. Finally, it hints at how the issue gets resolved (what the rest of the story is about).

What books do you return to again and again for good writing inspiration?
There’s a wealth of great resources on writing. Two top ones are:

  • The Gregg Reference Manual for all questions on correctness
  • Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for guidance on clear, concise professional writing

What will professionals get out of the U’s Business Writing Certificate program?
Professionals coming into the Business Writing Certificate mostly don’t care about writing elegance. They want to pick up techniques that help them get better results when they write: higher productivity, faster responses, stronger rapport with their readers. And in every class I deliver for the program, I learn something new and valuable from participants.

How do you like working with CCAPS?
Working with the University of Minnesota and helping design and deliver the business writing program has been a fun, fascinating journey for me. The relationship with the U has been smooth, supported by highly competent and friendly staff.