What works better in business writing: perfection or excellence?

HTWB perfectWho was it who said that to strive for perfection was unproductive, but to strive for excellence was a realistic and worthwhile goal to aim for?

Whoever it was, it was someone a lot smarter (and undoubtedly richer) than me. And it could well have been another writer. But sometimes it’s difficult for us.

When you’re a business writer/writing exponent/practitioner/coach/tutor etc., on the one hand you get slapped up against a wall and told to lay off being so precious and pompous about correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, etc.

On the other hand you get slapped up against the same wall for letting people off the hook in workshops and tutorials when they get past tense and past participles mixed up, dangle participles in mid-air, or (in the UK at least) split an infinitive.

And when you suggest that everyone should relax and let the language evolve while treading somewhere between Shakespeare and downtown Chicago street-speak, people look at you like you’ve just crawled out of a smelly drain.

So where does  perfection fit into business writing?

Short answer: it doesn’t. Not in my writing business. (And I suspect not in many others’ businesses either.) Why?

Because perfection takes far too much time to achieve. In so many cases by the time you have arrived at perfection, it has become obsolete. Times change faster than perfection does, especially now. That applies to business writing every bit almost as much as it does to technology and everything relevant to the internet.

What I believe is  realistic in writing (and many other spheres) however, is excellence, for three reasons:

One, you are doing the best you can right now, whatever your immediate given circumstances.

Two, it’s flexible enough that you can keep tweaking it in an upwards direction as you build up the circumstances around it.

And three, it’s a realistic goal for you to keep striving for: excellence is ongoing, but perfection tends to comprise a range of static milestones.

Then how does business writing work with excellence?

For what it’s worth, here’s the Suze StMoo guide to realistic business English writing excellence, and I hope they may help you to get your perfection standards in writing to a level you’re comfortable with.

1.Grammar etc. You need to know the rules before you can break them. By all means take some liberties with grammar but know that you’re doing it and make that obvious. That way you avoid the problems indicated below. Ensure that when you do break the rules you do it for a good reason that emphasizes and enhances your text (or audio/video script.)

business writing,perfection,excellence,blogging,social media2.Silly goofs make you look amateurish. These include all those stupid issues with apostrophes in the wrong place, “there, their, they’re” type mistakes, and spelling goofs like “loose” when you mean “lose.” I know I shouldn’t be hawking my own stuff here but if you’re unsure about this stuff for Heaven’s sake buy my eBook “Banana Skin Words and how to avoid slipping on them.” I’d love to offer it to you for free but can’t, so cough up the $4.50 (less than UK £3.00 or €3.00) – roughly what you’d pay for a fancy sandwich – and get those silly goofs right once and for all. If you have any further questions after you’ve bought the book you know me, I’ll answer them for free if you ask. So it’s a bloody good deal.

3.Use the language, within reason, that your customers/readers use. Although I never advocate indiscriminate use of jargon on blog posts and other business writing, you know your readers and the way they speak, the jargon they use, and the terms that ring their chimes. (If you don’t, you should.) Never try to elevate your readers’ intellectual level or move them on to a different level. They will move on alright, but to someone else’s website or blog.

4.Strive for excellence right across your business communications. It’s not just on your blog or your website, but every email or business letter you send, every social media post you do or comment you make, and every other written manifestation of your business and brand that you send out. Get this straight:  OK, only one writing goof can destroy perfection. But we know that perfection wastes too much time. However, never forget that only a few goofs in your writing can have the same effect which will knacker your excellence, too.

How do you  rate perfection versus excellence in your business writing? Which do you feel gains and maintains worthwhile ongoing business?

Let the discussion begin!
photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc




  1. Interesting conversation on LinkedIn …

    Sarah Setterfield
    Helping business professionals build and develop a strong and credible identity

    Really enjoyed reading this Suze. I’ve always maintained that striving for perfection is the fastest route to a nervous breakdown, preferring to do the very best I can with what I have. In writing, I have frequently made stupid mistakes which is nearly always due to the fact that I struggle to discipline myself to proof-read what I have written and then often when I do, I still filter out my own mistakes. The grammar police are always there to let you know, after the fact, when you can’t do anything about it, that you have made a mistake. I then metaphorically, beat myself up for days over it. Your Banana Skins book looks like a good idea purchase though!

    Suzan St Maur AMIPA
    Best-selling author, business & social media writing consultant. Founder of popular resource, HowToWriteBetter.net

    Glad you enjoyed the article, Sarah – when it comes to “perfection” in grammar, spelling, etc. you often feel that it’s tails you win, heads I lose, don’t you? The more we talk about this the more it seems that as you say, constantly striving for perfection is enough to get you sectioned, but excellence is pretty cool too and at least it’s something we can all live with. Hope you enjoy “Banana Skins” if/when you get it!