Feeling most American adults struggle with writing, author Ken O’Quinn has written a book intended as a resource for writers paralyzed by the blank screen, struggling to find the right words.

O’Quinn, of Cape Elizabeth, said his recently published book “Perfect Phrases for Business Letters” caters largely to corporate America where employees regularly relay important messages via e-mail, memos and letters. But O’Quinn said his techniques are valuable to anybody working in any size business, big or small.

“Good tight writing is like muscle fiber,” he said, “there’s not a lot of flab.” Unfortunately, most people do not diligently pursue honing their writing skills. Instead, they rely on elementary grammar and technique, which O’Quinn said reflects poorly upon them in their work environment.

O’Quinn said one of the pitfalls of e-mail is that it’s still not seen as a formal means of communication although it’s being used more and more in that capacity. Despite this, employees still send out office communications “in the same way they would to their buddy down the hall about going to happy hour,” said O’Quinn.

Political correctness is another facet of business communication that is essential in today’s work environment, said O’Quinn. O’Quinn defines political correctness as sensitivity and respect. In his book, there are suggestions of phrases to use for difficult tasks like reprimanding and firing employees. There are ways for managers to approach such unpleasant situations that are sensitive and empathetic, said O’Quinn.

For example, when firing an employee, O’Quinn advises using phrases like “we regret that this action is necessary,” “such conduct is unacceptable” and “job performance has been unacceptable.”

In O’Quinn’s opinion, this standardization of business communication permeates the corporate landscape in part because of the threat of lawsuits. “In the corporate world, they’re trying to avoid litigation,” he said.

O’Quinn, a corporate writing coach since 1994, gathered much of the material for his book from correspondences he collected while coaching corporate employees.

He also concedes though that political correctness can go too far. Though he offers many surefire standby phrases for conveying a message, they are not intended to strip writing of all personality, he said. “Be tactful, be professional, but don’t be phony,” he said.

A daily journalist for 21 years, 12 spent with the Associated Press, O’Quinn said business writing is similar to news writing in its formulaic style.

Business writing is most effective when it’s direct, brief and written in a conversational tone, O’Quinn said. The problem arises when people churn out long spiraling thoughts, without charting a course of action. This kind of communication can quickly unwind. O’Quinn said a conversational tone “does not mean using seven times as many words as you need… business communication is all about economy of language.”

An economy of words equals increased productivity and writers should be aware of that. “Words are space, and space is time and most readers don’t have much of it,” said O’Quinn. “People don’t read your e-mails and memos for entertainment.”

“Perfect Phrase for Business Letters,” was not the book O’Quinn wanted to write. His initial proposal was for a substantive book on journalistic writing for corporate employees working on newsletters, magazines and press releases. Although he never considered himself an author, he has hopes for publishing a second book geared towards corporate management.

Cape Elizabeth resident Ken O’Quinn recently published his first book, “Perfect Phrases for Business Letters” with McGraw-Hill.


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