Six Areas To Focus On When Improving Your Business Writing Skills
Looking to improve your business writing? While there are plenty of areas you can work on to truly step your business writing game up, starting with specific and actionable elements offer your best chance at producing better and more effective business documents today.
State Your Purpose Quickly
Sometimes, the purpose can be stated in the header. Do it there. Sometimes, it requires a proper sentence. Make that the first line on your document. Sometimes, it needs a complete paragraph. Lead in with it.
The point is to state your purpose quickly and early. Don’t reveal any other information before your purpose as that is exactly what people who read and receive your business communication will be looking for. Everything you insert in front of that is just distraction that will serve to muddle up the succeeding discussion.
When you state your purpose quickly, you give readers the information they want right up front. There’s no time wasted and no words minced — they immediately know what the document is for as soon as they glance upon it. That allows them to decide, without having to guess, whether this is something they can ignore or need to pay complete attention to.
Forget about business writing for a moment. Think about people you’re talking to. When someone comes up to you that you don’t know, would you rather they state their purpose immediately? Or do you really enjoy it when people mask their intentions until later? It’s the same way with writing, especially in business. People are busy — let them know what you’re writing about quickly and early.
Separate Details From Actions
Avoid mixing up details of the document with the actions you want people to take in the same sentences and paragraphs. It often ends up being confusing, resulting in them missing what could be crucial information.
By details, we mean hard information — the who, what, when, where, how and why. By actions, we mean the things those who read the document are supposed to take. Should they review the report? Attend a meeting? Call up a supplier and threaten to pull all your future orders? At the least, put details and orders in separate paragraphs to create a clear separation of information. For longer documents, put them in separate sections (with headers, if possible).
The days of business writing sounding like a contract drafted by a committee of lawyers is done. That type of stuffy, stilted writing just doesn’t work for today’s business environment.
Information today moves fast. As such, they need to be delivered in mediums that can be consumed and acted upon in a similarly swift manner. Writing in a conversational manner achieves that. By conversational, of course, we don’t mean writing like you’re talking to your five year old child or your drinking buddies during a weekend poker game. Instead, business conversational writing simply requires using the same word choices and sentence structures you will use when interacting with business colleagues. Surely, you don’t talk using stuffy language when meeting with a client or when hammering decisions out in the boardroom, right?
Write For Your Audience
If you’re writing a document for technical people, then use technical terms if it will clarify things. If you’re writing for CEOs and vice presidents, then write in a way that speaks to them — less technical discussion, with more focus on results.
Take into account how busy the recipients of your writing are. Don’t send a long email when a short email will do. Don’t write a long report when a short one can convey all the necessary information. Add an abstract and a summary to every business report — it spares the recipients from diving into pages upon pages of text in order to understand what’s going on.
Be Specific And Concrete
Avoid generalizations, ideas and concepts. Instead, focus on what’s tangible and specific. The former is vague and boring; the latter paints a real picture in the reader’s mind. Take these two statements:
(1) We encourage everyone to work harder to meet our goal for the month.
(2) Do everything in your power to help us meet our goal for the month by finishing your deliverables as scheduled. Overtime will be approved, as necessary.
In the above example, the first sentence tells readers to “work harder,” a vague and unspecific concept that can be interpreted in different ways. The second makes it clear — people are asked to meet their deliverables for the month, with the option of overtime when needed. The first one dispenses general platitude, the second makes a concrete demand. Do more of the second and less of the first.
Why do a lot of people tend to write in a vague and unspecific manner? My guess is, that’s just how they’re used to thinking — in general, big picture concepts. It causes no problems in their heads because they can fill in the details mentally. Problem occurs, however, when other people read the same ideas — they just can’t understand because they don’t know the underlying details.
Write in a positive manner. No, we don’t mean sounding like Polyanna every other sentence, trying to put a positive spin on negative information. Doing so misleads the reader and communicate the wrong message. For instance, telling someone “your performance surpassed close to 80% of our target” can give an employee the impression you’re praising their productivity, when what you’d really want them to do is hit 100% of their target (as in, “your performance fell 20% short of expected target”).
By positive, we mean avoiding structuring your sentences in a negative manner. Basically, try to steer clear of using the word “not” and “don’t,” as they tend to obscure the message in the sentence. For instance:
(1) Do not take a sick day without calling, as it will not be considered valid if you don’t call.
(2) Call early to inform your supervisor when you’re taking a sick day to have it considered a valid leave.
Both sentences say the same thing. The first, though, is framed negatively, focusing on what shouldn’t be done; the latter is positively framed, telling you exactly what you should do. The second, while longer, reads simpler and will lead to less confusion.