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Work Smart | Business writing
8 simple ways to become a better business writer
Most of us need to write every day.
Here are a few tips to make it less painful.
by Gwen Moran
Published November 06, 2018
Photo Kinga Cichewicz
Let’s face it: Everyday business writing can be hard. Facing down a blank page or screen, you want to get your point across to your colleagues or audience, but it’s sometimes a painful process if the words don’t come naturally.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to be an award-winning scribe to be an effective business communicator. So, before you write your next email or report, keep these tips in mind:
Write for the reader, not for yourself.
It sounds basic, but good writing starts with knowing your audience, yet the most common problem is that people write for themselves, says executive business writing coach Mary Cullen. “We write from our own perspective rather than the perspective of the reader. In business writing, there aren’t that many firm rules because so much of it is contextual, but there is one and it’s this: The epicenter is the reader, always,” she says.
Write just as much as is necessary, no more.
While “shorter is better” is a common theme, your audience and the purpose of the document will also tell you how long your piece needs to be, says business communication trainer John Sturtevant. So, if you are writing a summary for someone who’s a “just the facts” type and may get bored with details, keep a short summary with bullet points may be best. If you’re writing a deep analysis for an audience that needs to understand context and details, write accordingly, he says.
Lose the jargon (mostly)
Some people write in a much more stiff and formal style than they speak, using lots of jargon. That’s usually not the best way to get your point across, Cullen says. Instead, for most pieces, it’s better to write an a more accessible way, losing unnecessarily stiff language. Never use a long word when a short one will do, she says. That’s not “dumbing it down”–it’s helping people read what you write.
But Cullen makes a distinction between jargon and useful industry shorthand. “Acronyms are great internally because, I’m using in my industry LMS, learning management system, when my instructors and I talk, we use that term all the time because we know what that means, but we don’t use terms like ‘synergy,'” she says. If you’re using industry terms or acronyms, consider writing out the full name or term, followed by any acronym, then adding a brief explanation of what it is on first reference to expand the accessibility of your text. For example, “We implemented a new learning management system (LMS), a software platform to manage our internal training, in 2018.”
Pay attention to how you use words
Loose vs. lose. Accept vs. except. Comprise vs. compose. There are many examples of misused words that can undermine your writing. From the classic Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White to the more modern tomes like That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means by Ross and Kathryn Petras, there are plenty of books and online articles about commonly misused words. It’s worth reviewing your text for possibly misused words, which can undermine your meaning and credibility, Cullen says.
Also, watch for weak word choices and qualifiers such as “very,” and redundancies (uniquely individual, advance notice, etc.) Passive voice, which makes the object of an action the subject of your sentence, also weakens your writing. You can often spot instances of passive voice in forms of the verb “be,” so do a quick search for forms of the verb and tighten up your writing where you find them. For example:
Passive voice: The report was written by Fred.
Active voice: Fred wrote the report.
Active voice makes your writing livelier.
Make it easy to scan
No matter how long your piece is, write it so that people can get the main points by scanning, Cullen says. That means including subheads that tell you what’s in that section, bullet points, bold points to start paragraphs, and the like, she says. This also makes reading your work on mobile devices easier. Cullen recommends keeping paragraphs to seven lines or fewer.
Use tech tools
Technology is a great friend when it comes to better business writing. From the spelling and grammar check on your word processor to apps like Grammarly, digital tools are getting better about helping us improve our language, Cullen says. She developed the Jargon Grader tool, which helps find more than 700 overused and jargon-y words. When it reviewed the sentence, “At the end of the day, we’re going to spend our meeting time on blue-sky issues and ideating ways to monetize our deliverables,” it only flagged “At the end of the day” and “monetize” as problematic.
Read it out loud
Sturtevant says one of the classic ways to improve your writing is to read a piece out loud. Doing so allows you to hear awkward language, spot typos and punctuation errors, improve flow, and find areas to cut or enhance, including:
- Am I bored?
- Am I confused?
- Do I run out of breath before I get to the end of a sentence, indicating it’s too long?
- Are there places where the words sound awkward?
- Am I expressing myself clearly?
“If I read it to myself, my brain will tell me the word ‘to’ is there. If I read it out loud, I’ll hear, ‘help your employees learn write,'” he explains.
Enlist an editor
If you struggle with issues like spelling and punctuation, enlist a colleague or hire an editor or proofreader to help you clean up your document. Of course, it’s not feasible to do this for every email message, but if you have an important report or proposal, having an extra set of eyes on it can help avoid embarrassing mistakes.