When in doubt, leave it out

I’ve been reading about cover letter and resume snafus–some of them real doozies. One woman gave the owner of an escort service as a reference. A programmer’s cover letter ended with the line, “I look forward to negotiating my salary, as I feel confident that I am worth more than the $65,000 you are offering.”

By far the most common error is including extraneous information–especially if it makes you look bad. Examples: “I type 14 words per minute.” (The HR person groaned, “We didn’t even ask for typing speed!”) “My social skills have improved since I started taking Paxil.” “Please text me, as I don’t check my email or answer the phone.”

Before sending out a resume or cover letter, give it quick once-over to eliminate TMI. Then ask a friend to do the same.

Circle the wagons and bark like a dog

It’s been an amazing week for office-speak. Between the hallway, the elevator, the conference room and the copy center, I heard the following:

“I’m in concert with the sales team.”
“Let’s cascade this memo.”
“It pleasures me to inform you….”
“Please govern yourself accordingly.”
“I need to give you a dump.”

And my favorite:
“Ping Doris and make sure it’s on her radar.”

In case your ears aren’t bleeding yet, here are a few more: action items, metrics, laser focus, tickler list, in the weeds. Aren’t you glad it’s Friday?

Unreasonable requests: how do you push back?

Some jobs or projects have clearly defined boundaries. But many of us end up taking on  responsibilities that aren’t listed in the job description.

This works out fine as long as the redefined job is properly resourced, properly valued, and has a reasonable–okay, feasible–set of deliverables. Otherwise it’s a train wreck.

How do you handle this situation? What language do you use to a) notify your manager that you believe the job parameters have changed, b) set the scene for renegotiation, and c) get yourself a better deal?

6 professional ways to say “This sucks”

How do you tell your colleagues or subordinates their work isn’t up to par? I just sat through an incredibly painful review of a branding document that had been 18 months in the making. As the team made its presentation, the faces of the review board went from enthusiastic to concerned to horrified. Here’s what they said:

  1. It looks like management didn’t communicate some important points to your team.
  2. You may be a little too close to the project.
  3. We need an outside perspective.
  4. I was envisioning something more along the lines of competitor x.
  5. I don’t think this will get us the results we’re looking for.
  6. We’re not quite there yet.

What would you say?

Over and above

One error that scalds my eyeballs is the confusion of “above” and “more than.”  Here’s the rule: “Above” implies a relationship between objects, while “more than” refers to numerical comparisons. So “the UFO hovered above the Chrysler Building” but “the event raised more than $50,000.”

And what about “over?” William Safire has argued that it should never be used with numbers, but most major style guides beg to differ. The best advice comes from the Associated Press: “Use whichever term sounds best.”

In praise of recycling

I keep a folder called “Templates” on my desktop. Whenever I write a proposal, create a spreadsheet, or send a query letter that contains language I may want to use again, I save a copy into it.

Some of the pieces are dated. But over the years, this practice has saved me countless hours of writing time.

What are your best time-saving tips?

The Idiom’s Guide

An idiom is a group of words which, taken together, have a figurative meaning. The English language contains thousands of them, and they drive foreign speakers to despair: “How can I watch my back, or pay through the nose?” asks one student plaintively on UsingEnglish.com.

Even native speakers are flummoxed by regional idioms. “Happy as Larry,” “more front than Brighton” and  “man on the Clapham omnibus” are three that have stymied me.

While it’s best to leave idioms out of business writing altogether, you may not even know you’re using them. Here are a few that have made their way into my recent emails:

  • Back burner
  • Bells and whistles
  • Bend over backwards
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • Get the ball rolling
  • Jump the shark
  • Monday morning quarterback
  • Reinvent the wheel

Which idioms bother you most?

It ain’t necessarily so

Here’s a difficult dichotomy: sometimes grammatical errors make your writing better. And by “better,” I mean “more powerful and compelling.” The following rules are made to be broken:

Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. But why not? And who’s to stop me? For I am inspired by the flow of these sentences. Yet editors continue to challenge them. To which I say, “Phooey.”

Don’t end with a preposition. There are so many exceptions to this rule that I hereby declare it an ex-rule. From “What did you step in?” to “This idea makes me throw up,” prepositions are perfectly appropriate at the end of a sentence. That said, don’t use them if they’re not needed. “Where are you at?” is just wrong, and even “where it’s at” would be perfectly correct as  “where it is.”

Don’t split infinitives. Even before Star Trek urged us “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” Robert Burns “dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride.” John Donne, Benjamin Franklin, George Eliot and William Wordsworth were also fans of this grammatical “error.”