Writing is a fascinating exploration into the human mind. The right words can move you to tears, make you want to buy, or turn your insides as warm and gooey as caramel custard. The wrong words can turn you instantly off a person or a company, send you into a rage, or make you totally confused about the point someone is trying to make.
In the past few weeks, I have been marking university assignments for final year management students (180 different students to be precise). These students are shortly to be let loose on an unsuspecting world, and yet many were still struggling with basic business writing.
We teach people how to think, but we often miss how to express our thoughts in a way that will persuade or influence the people reading our words.
Everybody has days when their brain works faster than their fingers. Words are missed, typos occur, and mistakes are made. The problem is that these mistakes can negatively impact on how people view you and your business.
Here are 13 easy ways that you can improve your business writing (even if you are not writing management assignments for uni).
Planning Your Work
Your Point Is …
Before you put your pen anywhere near your paper, work out your key messages. Each piece of writing should have at least one clear message in it. Dot point your key messages or points that you want to make first to help create structure to your words.
Know the action you want
Imagine for a moment you are in a crowded area. Someone runs up to the crowd and says, “There’s a sale over in that shop. There are lots of great things for sale,” before running away.
After a few puzzled looks, people will go back to doing what they were doing before. One or two of the most curious people may wander over to take a look.
Now imagine the same scenario, but this time the person says, “There’s a sale over in that shop. There are lots of great things for sale. Go over and check it out before they sell out. There is only 15 minutes left on the sale.”
There will be less puzzled looks and more people going over to look.
Every piece of business writing needs an action. What do you want people to do as a result of reading your words?
Putting the words down
Do your research and gather inspiration but don’t steal
Have you ever watched a movie and noticed that the actor drops in and out of their accent? They just can’t seem to keep a consistent accent going. After a while, you ignore what they are saying because you are so focused on watching and waiting for the next accent break. That’s what it is like when you liberate other people’s words and shoehorn them into your writing.
Do your research to gain ideas for your writing, but don’t attempt to copy and paste their words as your own. It is obvious when you are speaking someone else’s words. Don’t plagiarise. Just don’t!
Do a stream of consciousness first draft and then edit like crazy
Once you have done your research and worked out your key points and actions, then comes the writing part.
Here’s what most writers won’t tell you. Start with a really messy, stream of consciousness draft. Don’t try to edit yourself at this point as editing and creating run on two different brain circuits. If you leap into editing while you write, you free your inner critic to strangle the creative bits of your brain into oblivion.
Write your words in all their messy glory just to get everything down on paper. Then go get a coffee and celebrate having done the hardest bit – getting started!
Editing: The Cuts That Make the Difference
Editing is where you turn your stream of consciousness into something useful, interesting and readable. Go hard with your editing and don’t be afraid to prune out bits you emotionally like but that don’t add anything to your writing (also known as killing your darlings)!
Cut the fluff and padding
When you read your words back, have you said exactly the same thing only in different ways? In business communication, once is generally enough. Get rid of the padding as you are not trying to scrape in to meet the minimum word count on an assignment.
Delete jargon and acronyms
Each industry is known for its jargon and those little letters that represent words. Psychologically it is a way of showing belonging and keeping out strangers. Do you really want to shore up your ramparts and repel invading armies through your words? If not, then do a jargon busting scan through your business documents before hitting the print or send button.
Keep it simple
Using complex language in documents is tiring to read and creates brain fog, which means you are losing readers and understanding. Remember, a confused mind always says no.
No one is impressed if you pack your sentences with complex language. They just think you are a bit of a wally who doesn’t know how to communicate with other humans, and that you need to get a grip.
However, informal doesn’t mean unprofessional, so leave out all the gossip and off-colour jokes.
A quick tip – unless you use those words in conversation with your mum over dinner, then you need to tone down your pomposity.
Make sure your words are active, and not written in a passive couch potato style. “The selection panel reviews all applications” is better than “Once received, applications for positions are reviewed by the selection panel”.
Get up close and personal
Put the “you” back into your writing rather than third person impersonal language. It’s more interesting to read, and people will respond better to your writing. “We value your feedback” is more effective than “XYZ Corporation values your feedback”.
Watch the meaning of words
If you can’t define out loud to someone what a word means – don’t use it. If in doubt, use a dictionary to double check a word’s meaning (and spelling).
My personal favourite was when someone sent me an email apologising for the incontinence they had caused me. I hope they were trying to say inconvenience.
One of my students hit an all-time record: One paragraph that went on and on and on for a page and a half. 75% of the students seem to have missed every lecture on paragraphs during school.
Just in case you need a refresher as well, a paragraph is 3-4 related sentences on a single topic or thought. It contains one main idea or theme, accompanied by supporting ideas or examples.
If you change topic, then change paragraphs to help your reader understand that one set of ideas has ended and another set is starting.
Paragraphs help readability and give people space to digest what has been said.
Paragraphs are not an endangered species so feel free to use them.
Read it out loud
Read your words out loud. If you run out of breath before you run out of sentence, your sentence is too long, and you need to take the pruning shears to it.
Spell and grammar check EVERYTHING
Never hit send or publish on anything without running it through a spellchecker or grammar checker. I use and love Grammarly and recommend it to all my students and clients.
However, you can’t fully rely on technology to pick up all the quirky bits, so print off your document and read it back to help your brain pick up errors with your writing.
Someone once said you need to write to express not to impress. This is particularly true with business writing.
In business, just like at uni, you want to get a result. You want people to “get” what you are saying and take action on your words, more than you want them to marvel at your use of prose and flowery language. Action and understanding is more important than showing off.