Marvin Swift once said, "Clear writing means clear thinking."
Today's business world is information-centric. Whether you own a small company or you're employed by a huge global corporation, one thing is for sure: a lot of your time is spent communicating with other people, normally in writing.
You may write proposals to your clients, send memos to your company's senior executives, or communicate with colleagues through emails.
While improving your writing may seem like a tedious exercise, it offers many benefits. Knowing how to write intelligent and interesting business material is key to communicating effectively, setting yourself apart, and winning business.
Your ideas may be out of this world, but if you can't write well, nobody will ever know them.
If you're not very good at writing for business, you are not alone. Most businesspeople have very little experience in writing. They probably did some writing in college, but writing is rarely emphasized in business school—it's not the reason people study business in the first place.
The good news is that writing is not a gift you are born with, it is a skill you cultivate. Here are some tips you can use to become better at writing business material.
If there is one trait your writing needs to have, it’s clarity. Unfortunately, this is the one trait that most business material lacks. It is neither informative, precise, or professional, it is just vague.
Jargon refers to words or phrases used by a particular group of people that are difficult for others to understand. It is unnecessarily complicated language people use to impress—rather than inform—their audience. You may use jargon on a daily basis, but when writing business copy, it's best to avoid it.
These are some commonly abused jargon phrases:
- Paradigm shift
- Think outside the box
- Give 110 percent
When writing for business, write for an audience with a 9th grade reading level. This is the average American adult reading level. Go through your writing and check if there are any words that might be difficult to understand without a dictionary. If there are, replace them with words that an average person can understand. This helps give your writing a conversational tone readers will find more relatable.
Just to be clear, when we say that you shouldn't use jargon, we're not saying you should leave out important technical terms. What we're saying is that you should make words as clear as possible. Some technical terms can be very useful within a particular audience and can clearly communicate with that group. But going beyond those terms and using jargon can lead to misunderstandings or alienation, even if your readers are experts.
People usually complain about jargon more than any other writing mistake. This is because most businesspeople fail to realize that the terms they are very familiar with are meaningless or difficult for their audience. Try to substitute jargon with everyday words as often as possible. For example, instead of saying "involuntarily undomiciled," you can say “homeless.”
Albert Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”
In business writing, and in other kinds of writing, being concise is key. As written information takes on a vital role in the smooth running of companies, people are less willing to read. How ironic.
Magazines and websites that used to publish 3,000-word articles are now publishing 500-word features. Readers want clear, effective, and professionally-written content.
Most people find that the writing style they developed in school has no place in the business world. One of the biggest mistakes is putting off the message until the middle part of the content. By diving into your main idea first, you sharpen your argument before getting into the bulk of your writing and save the reader a lot of time.
If you're writing a long memo or a proposal, state the issue and the proposed solution in less than 150 words—preferably at the beginning of the first page. Use words sparingly. Avoid long, meandering sentences, and cut out flowery prose. Develop a knack for summarizing and remember that if your opening line is no good, the entire piece will be no good.
Keep in mind that most people will skim your copy and will get quickly overwhelmed if they see huge blocks of text. Break up paragraphs every one to four sentences. White space enhances readability and gives the page a rich, elegant appearance.
Use the active voice to keep your copy concise. Avoid using unnecessary words and phrases. Make headlines big and bold to ensure readers stop skimming and pay attention.
Check Your Work Twice
After you're done writing your business material, go back and read it through critical eyes. Every word you've written should work toward your larger point. Put yourself in the reader's shoes and check whether your points are clear and well-structured. Nothing is as embarrassing as a typo in a well-written document.
You're probably thinking, "It's not fair, typos are inevitable!" Yes, they are. But people will judge you for the mistakes you make, and they will judge you very harshly.
Unless you have a deadline to beat, save the document and go through it later. If you decide to proofread the document immediately after you've written it, your brain will ignore the errors you've just made. Go through the document a few hours later—or a day later—before sending it.
Read the words out loud as that's how the flaws will reveal themselves: clunky sentences, gaps in your arguments, and paragraphs that are too long. Check that you've used the right tone throughout: your content must say what you want it to say in the way you want to say it.
Make sure people's names, titles, and genders are properly written. (Did you address Mr. Smith as Ms. Smith?) If you're not sure how someone's name is spelled, their gender, or their job title, find out from someone who knows. "They" and "their" are now acceptable gender-neutral pronouns. Use them when you are unsure.
After proofreading your content, request a colleague or a friend to go through it and edit it. You can also use an editing tool like ProWritingAid to get the job done in less time.
Write Business Material Every Day
Writing is a skill and the only way to improve this skill is through practice. Think of writing practice as a type of physical activity. If you decided to start running for the first time, would you be ready to run a marathon immediately?
The obvious answer is no. You would have to train for a very long time to improve your stamina and strengthen your muscles.
The same goes for writing.
Just like you need to strengthen your muscles before you run a marathon, you must habitually practice writing in order to write better business material. This doesn't mean you write multiple reports or respond to every email you get, we know you don't have the time for that.
Spend some time reading well-written business material every day. Pay attention to every sentence, structure, and the flow. Build time into your schedule every day for editing and revising. As you continually work on your writing, change will happen.
Be Professional, Not Formal
Not every piece of business material needs to read like a dissertation or a court filing. Many businesspeople make the mistake of thinking that all business copy is formal, but this isn't always the case.
It's okay to use formal language when you’re writing legal documents or job applications. However, just like jargon, formal content has the tendency to obscure rather than reveal its meaning. Being informal doesn't mean being unprofessional. You can write copy that informs and entertains at the same time.
However, even if you decide to let your guard down a little bit, your business material should:
- Have proper grammar and spelling
- Be devoid of off-color humor
- Not include gossip or snarky comments
- Not trash the competition
Remember that businesses are legally required to maintain copies of all written communication. Don't circulate or email anything you wouldn't want read in public. While being informal is good, there is no excuse for letting standards drop and giving people the wrong impression about your company.
Write Better Business Copy from Today
If you constantly write emails and work-related reports, it’s vital that your writing is accurate and clear. Poor writing could mean failing to secure a crucial business relationship or losing a multi-million dollar bid. Email recipients may ignore your poorly-written email because they don’t understand it well enough to reply. Some may see it as “unprofessional” and not worth their time.
Improving your writing skills will boost your company's image and help you to save time. You'll be able to get your ideas across with greater impact. Don't let your business material get lost in the crowd, use these tips to make it stand out from the pack.