How to Improve Your Business Writing
The ability to write well may not rank high among your priorities, but communicating effectively with employees, suppliers, customers, and prospective clients is critically important for small-business owners.
Think of all the ways in which you communicate with people in writing — email, business correspondence, blogs, presentations, press releases, marketing copy, and so on. Are you sure that you’re saying what you want to say and that others understand you? A lack of clarity can cost you time and money.
So, how do you improve your business writing? Reviewing the basics and taking a little time to practice — and edit yourself — can make a big difference in how well you communicate with others.
Here are six tips for improving your writing skills and getting your message across to the people you want to reach.
1. Take a “less is more” approach. There’s a common misconception that using big words and long, complex sentences makes people sound more intelligent. It doesn’t. Instead, it tends to blur key points and leave readers confused. Use short words and concise sentences whenever possible.
2. Get to the point. You may feel like you need to provide context or background information with a particular message, but most of the time this is unnecessary. We’re all pressed for time, so use every opportunity to get to the point immediately. Add additional details as bullet points or under subheads, if needed, as long as they support your main point. One key point per message is a good rule-of-thumb for virtually any communiqué.
3. Use subject-verb-object construction. We all lapse into “passive prose” from time to time, as in: “The speech given by Jackie was very well-received by the audience.” To make your sentences more effective and interesting to read, use the classic (and active) subject-verb-object structure: “Jackie’s speech captured the audience’s attention.”
4. Avoid formality and business jargon. Your email, letter, or presentation is supposed to convey an idea, not sound like a page out of the King James Bible. Concerns about coming across as “too casual” can result in impersonal, overly formal language that no one wants to read. Write as if you’re speaking to someone in a respectful but informal tone. Although many businesses and industries use jargon, the overuse of specialized words and acronyms makes the writing seem meaningless. This makes jargon easy for readers to skip over or ignore, or even worse, it can leave those unfamiliar with a term scratching their heads.
5. Know what you want the reader to do. Each message should have a point (why else would you write it?) and a desired goal for the intended audience. As you compose your thoughts, keep these questions in mind: Why should readers care? How will they benefit? What do you expect them to do after reading your email or memo? The answers to these questions will help shape and refine your message.
6. Edit ruthlessly. Great authors fanatically revise and edit their work, and you should, too. It’s OK for your first draft to ramble, repeat itself, digress from the topic at hand, and so on. What you do next, in terms of clarifying your point and removing unnecessary words, is what really counts. When you’re finished revising your message, let it sit for a while. Never rush to send out an unedited document; there’s too great a risk that typos, misspellings, and incorrect punctuation will make you look unprofessional and damage your reputation, particularly among prospective customers. Either ask someone else to read what you’ve written or review it again with fresh eyes later on.
Finally, double-check to make sure that you’ve spelled recipients’ names and titles correctly. Use gender-neutral language (such as “they” and “their”) whenever possible. Otherwise, your informative, well-written message may offend some readers and possibly cost you business.
Lee Polevoi is an award-winning business writer specializing in the challenges and opportunities facing small business. He is former Senior Writer at Vistage International, a global membership organization of CEOs.