12 Tips for Better Business Writing
Today’s business world is almost entirely information-driven. Whether you run a small business or occupy a small corner of the org-chart at a massive multinational corporation, chances are that the bulk of your job consists of communicating with others, most often in writing. Of course there’s email and the traditional business letter, but most business people are also called on to write presentations, memos, proposals, business requirements, training materials, promotional copy, grant proposals, and a wide range of other documents.
Here’s the rub: most business people have little experience with writing. While those with business degrees probably did a bit of writing in school, it’s rarely stressed in business programs, and learning to write well is hardly the driving force behind most people’s desire to go to business school. Those without a university background might have never been pushed to write at all, at least since public school.
If you’re one of the many people in business for whom writing has never been a major concern, you should know that a lack of writing skills is a greater and greater handicap with every passing year. Spending some time to improve your writing can result in a marked improvement in your hireability and promotional prospects. There’s no substitute for practice, but here are a few pointers to put you on the right track.
5 Tips For Better Business Writing Skills
Business writing has become one of the most sought after skills in the American workplace. Thanks to increases in email, text, and social media use, more employees are regularly using written communication at work regardless of their actual job duties. Workplace writing is no longer the domain of a few tech writers in a back office.
In fact, business writing is so important that in 2016, businesses spent $3.1 billion on remedial writing courses for their employees. That might sound crazy, but the consequences of poor writing are serious, affecting people’s impression of the business or causing mistakes that cost time and money. For this reason, an increasing number of businesses are using writing tests as part of their pre-screening during the hiring process, and according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 73.4% of employers seek employees with strong writing skills.
If reading this makes you nervous or you know you need a brush-up on your written communication skills, have no fear! It’s not Underdog, but it is TracSoft, here with practical advice to help you succeed.
Five Tips For Better Business Writing
- Put your main point in the first sentence. Business communication isn’t pleasure reading. In creative writing, such as novels, you can work up to big ideas, but business writing is functional. Someone who is reading your email just wants to know why they’re receiving your message and what to do next so they can get on with their work. Once you’ve written your ideas down, go back and choose the one sentence that best gets your point across and drag it to the beginning of your message. If your message has multiple paragraphs, do this for each paragraph.
- Use simple language. Maybe you know what sesquipedalian means, but not everyone does. The goal of business writing is to communicate an idea to someone, and as the writer, it’s your job to do that simply and quickly. Using simple, precise language does that much better than unusual, complex language. Plus, effective communication that helps your coworkers will build rapport, while complicated language your coworkers have to decipher will just make you seem stuck up.
- Eliminate unnecessary words. Avoiding “to be” verbs shortens and clarifies your writing. For instance, there’s no reason to write, “There are three things we need to doto improve our department” when you could write, “Three things would improve our department.” Using an active form of a verb makes you sound more assertive and communicates your ideas much faster. You can also eliminate prepositional phrases—phrases that begin with words like “in,” “on,” “for,” “at,” or “through.” Often these words add nothing to a sentence, instead making it feel clunky and overstuffed. Consider this example: “The reason for the lower numbers in the marketing department of our southern branch is that in the third quarter a hurricane that arrived on the coast caused a power outage throughout the area for two weeks.” A simplified version is much easier to read: “The southern branch had low numbers in the third quarter because a hurricane knocked out their power for two weeks.”
- Use a grammar checker. No matter how careful you are, mistakes happen, even for the best writers. But today there are many free tools you can use to check your writing before you send it off. Grammarly, which I use regularly, has a free Chrome plugin that will edit writing in your browser. This is great if you compose in programs like Google Docs or use web-based email. You also have the option of pasting text into the Grammarly site, where it will highlight your mistakes and make suggestions for fixing them. The free version of the site handles the most common errors, but there’s also a paid version that makes more extensive edits. Grammar Lookup and Ginger are very similar, offering most of the same features with both free and paid versions. Pro Writing Aid is another option that not only checks grammar, but makes suggestions about style as well.
- Proofread. I can’t say this enough. If a document you’ve written is important, set it aside for half an hour before you reread it. Often we work on our writing so long that we start reading what we think we’ve written rather than what’s on the page. Giving our eyes a rest helps us return to our work and find our mistakes more easily. But if you’re still having a tough time editing after your break, try reading your document backward, starting with the last sentence, then the next to last, then the next to next to last, and so on. Simply reading the document out of order will help your brain pay closer attention. Reading your work out loud can also help you pay more attention to your editing. And of course, if it really matters, run your document by a trusted coworker who can provide feedback.
If you’re really serious about improving your business writing skills, keeping a daily journal where you write for 10 minutes about your day (or new ideas you’ve had, your horrible commute, your cat—whatever) will help you build fluency, making it easier to get your ideas out when it matters. And don’t underestimate the power of reading. Reading a mere 30 minutes per day can help you learn new words, sentence structure, and styles you can employ in your professional writing.
Business writing is only going to become more important, but that doesn’t have to be a problem for you, even if you don’t love writing. These five tips will have you writing like a pro in no time, and that’s something your boss and coworkers will thank you for.
One way to improve writing within your company is to implement a brand style guide. This tool outlines standards for your business’ professional communications, including standards for marketing materials, professional correspondence, and more. If you think your business needs a style guide, check out our post on How To Create A Winning Brand Style Guide.