These tips can be used to improve your effectiveness any time you have to put something in writing for a business purpose – from emails and letters to marketing and submissions, and everything else in between.
1. Put the reader first
This is the first rule of all good writing – for business or for any other purpose.
We tend to focus on the problem or opportunity that prompted us to go ahead with a piece of writing in the first place. However, it’s more powerful to start with this question: Who is my reader, and what does he or she want or need?
This will influence the shape of what you write in a number of ways, including:
- What does my reader know? Modify the terms you use to suit the reader’s level of education and knowledge of specialist topics. For example, if you manufacture a plumbing widget, you’ll be able to use a lot more technical terms when writing for plumbers than if you are writing for the general public.
- What does my reader want or need? With persuasive writing, this will help you achieve the outcome you’re looking for. This applies whether you are in a position of authority (eg the reader’s boss) or in a less powerful position (eg the reader’s contractor). Whether you are trying to sell a product, explain an error, or just trying to get staff to stop leaving dirty dishes in the sink, you’ll have a lot more success if you think about what might motivate your reader to buy, forgive or behave. Look at what you’ve written, try to see it from their point of view, and think about how you could change it to be more persuasive.
- How much does my reader like to read? In most cases, the answer to this question is: A lot less than you think, so keep it short! But there may be cases where you can go into a little more detail, because of the level of motivation of your reader. If you must provide a lot of detail to a very unmotivated audience, try breaking the information down into short sections, and use a lot of bulleted lists and numbered points.
2. Stop trying to be impressive
Don’t use big words or difficult sentence constructions just to show your reader how smart you are. Readers resent writers who make them feel dumb. Readers love writers who make them feel smart and capable, and provide useful information in an easily accessible format. Don’t try to intimidate your reader by obfuscating your meaning behind polysyllabic words and multiple dependent clauses (see what I mean?), just communicate.
3. Re-read what you’ve written
Make sure it makes sense. It’s astounding how many people send emails and text messages that are complete gobbledegook, simply because they didn’t bother to read what they’d written before pressing “send”. But this also applies to other forms of written communication. In business, it lowers your credibility. Read it and then read it again.
- If it’s a very important document, get someone else to read it too. The more you’ve read a document, it gets hard to pick up your own errors, because you know it so well you see what you expect to see – what you meant to write rather than the letters that are actually on the page.
- Don’t trust the spell checker. Seriously. The spell checker will only tell you if a word is English or not. It won’t tell you if it’s the right word. You might want to tell someone you had a whale of a time at the beach, and instead tell them you had a wail of a time at the beech. One is a day in the sun, the other sounds more like an unusual woodland ritual, but it’s all the same to the spell checker.
- Beware of voice recognition software. Sometimes its ears are blocked. I know a senior executive who nearly sent an email asking a client to discuss “serious shoes”, when in fact he wanted to discuss “serious issues”. He and his assistant had a good laugh, but they might not have been so amused had he discovered the mistake after it landed in the client’s inbox!
4. Use the active voice, most of the time
You’ll often read that the active voice is preferable, and most times, it will give you a more vigorous-sounding document. Grammatically speaking, active voice is: subject active-verb object. But put more simply, it just means something or someone is acting on something or someone else, instead of being acted upon. “The dog bit the man” rather than “The man was bitten by the dog.”
There are exceptions to this rule. The passive voice is appropriate if you don’t know or, for reasons of sensitivity, don’t want to say who did the acting. For example, if you are writing a tender to a government authority to repair a road, you may prefer to say “The road has not had recent maintenance” rather than “Your department has not maintained this road.” The first example states the situation that needs to be remedied, but the second apportions blame to someone you are trying to gain as a client.
5. Use short sentences, most of the time
Keeping sentences short helps to limit the number of ideas a reader has to process in one hit. A full stop or period gives the reader a chance to take a mental breath.
Look for words like “however” and “therefore” appearing in the middle of sentences. Can you actually break it into two sentences at that point? Vary the length of your sentences a little, though. If all the sentences are short, you can start to read like a verbal machine gun!
6. Avoid jargon, most of the time
Like most things the Writing Police prohibit, jargon actually does have a place. If you are writing for a specialist audience about something in your specialist field, jargon can allow the swift communication of complex ideas with a minimum of words. And because both writer and reader understand the jargon, communication happens. But if you are writing for a non-specialist audience, be careful to ask yourself on every use of jargon:
- Will my reader understand this word?
- Is there a non-jargon word I could use instead to make my meaning clearer?
7. Have confidence in your ability to improve your writing
Over the years I have worked with a lot of people who lack confidence in their writing skills, even professionals with very high standards of education. But don’t let business writing scare you. It’s not the monster many people make it out to be. Just ask yourself these three questions:
- Have I ever had a business conversation with another person where I felt that meaning was successfully conveyed between the two of us?
- Am I willing to take the time to understand the needs and motivations of my reader?
- Do I believe in the message I am trying to communicate to my reader?
If you can answer “yes” to these three questions, you have the foundation on which to build an ever-improving set of business writing skills.
© Belinda Pollard 2011