How to Improve Your Business Writing

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Business Writing

This handout explains principles in business writing that apply to many different situations, from applying for a job to communicating professionally within business relationships. While the examples that are discussed specifically are the application letter and cover letter, this handout also highlights strategies for effective business writing in general.

Business writing refers to professional communication including genres such as policy recommendations, advertisements, press releases, application letters, emails, and memos. Because business writing can take many forms, business writers often consider their purpose, audience, and relationship dynamics to help them make effective stylistic choices. While norms vary depending on the rhetorical situation of the writer, business writers and audiences tend to value writing that communicates effectively, efficiently, and succinctly.

If you have been assigned a genre of business writing for a class, it may help to think about the strategies business writers employ to both gather and produce knowledge. A business communicator or writer may use the following forms of evidence: statistics, exploration of past trends, examples, analogy, comparison, assessment of risk or consequences, or citation of authoritative figures or sources. Your knowledge of and relationship to your audience will help you choose the types of evidence most appropriate to your situation.

Who is your audience?

To communicate effectively, it is critical to consider your audience, their needs, and how you can address all members of your audience effectively. As you prepare to write, think about the following questions:

  • What are your audience’s priorities and expectations?
  • What does your audience need to learn from your document?
  • How will you grasp the attention of readers when you are competing for their attention?
  • How will you help your reader move through your document efficiently? When is it effective to use bulleted lists, visuals, boldface, and section headers to guide your reader’s attention?
  • What does your audience most need to know?
  • What is your audience expecting? Is your goal to satisfy their expectations, or do you want to surprise them with a new idea?
  • How will you communicate about setbacks? When is it appropriate to spin bad information with a positive outlook? How will stakeholders, customers, or employees respond to bad news?
  • In general, how can you tailor the organization and style of your writing to address your audience’s considerations and needs?

Title. Is it appropriate to address your audience by their first name, or is a salutation needed? Are you addressing someone who prefers to be addressed by a formal title such as Dr. or Professor? If you are writing about a third party, do you know what title and pronouns to use? When the name of the person you’re writing to is unknown, then it is customary to address your letter “To Whom It May Concern.” But this may be impolite if the person’s name is known or easily discovered. You can find more information on titles, names, and pronouns in our handout on Gender-Inclusive Language.

Language. If you’re writing in English, ask yourself: Is English the first language of all your audience members? Are you using idioms or other expressions that might not be clear to someone with a different background in English? For example, are you using expressions that require U.S.-specific cultural knowledge?

What is your purpose?

By the Same Author

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Cut the fat
Don’t “use three words when one would do,” says Blackburn. Read your writing through critical eyes, and make sure that each word works toward your larger point. Cut every unnecessary word or sentence. There’s no need to say “general consensus of opinion,” for instance, when “consensus” will do. “The minute readers feel that a piece of writing is verbose they start tuning out,” says Garner. He suggests deleting prepositions (point of view becomes viewpoint); replacing –ion words with action verbs (provided protection to becomes protected); using contractions (don’t instead of do not and we’re instead of we are); and swapping is, are, was and were with stronger verbs (indicates rather than is indicative of).

Avoid jargon and $10 words
Business writing is full of industry-specific buzzwords and acronyms. And while these terms are sometimes unavoidable and can occasionally be helpful as shorthand, they often indicate lazy or cluttered thinking. Throw in too many, and your reader will assume you are on autopilot — or worse, not understand what you’re saying. “Jargon doesn’t add any value,” says Blackburn, but “clarity and conciseness never go out of style.” Garner suggests creating a “buzzword blacklist” of words to avoid, including terms like “actionable,” “core competency,” “impactful,” and “incentivize.” You should also avoid using grandiose language. Writers often mistakenly believe using a big word when a simple one will do is a sign of intelligence. It’s not.

Read what you write
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Is your point clear and well structured? Are the sentences straightforward and concise? Blackburn suggests reading passages out loud. “That’s where those flaws reveal themselves: the gaps in your arguments, the clunky sentence, the section that’s two paragraphs too long,” she says. And don’t be afraid to ask a colleague or friend — or better yet, several colleagues and friends — to edit your work. Welcome their feedback; don’t resent it. “Editing is an act of friendship,” says Garner. “It is not an act of aggression.”

Practice every day
“Writing is a skill,” says Blackburn, “and skills improve with practice.” Garner suggests reading well-written material every day, and being attentive to word choice, sentence structure, and flow. “Start paying attention to the style of The Wall Street Journal,” he says. Invest in a guide to style and grammar for reference — Garner recommends Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Most importantly, build time into your schedule for editing and revising. “Writing and reworking your own writing is where the change happens, and it’s not quick,” says Blackburn. “The time is well spent because good writers distinguish themselves on the job.”

Case study #1: Don’t be afraid to share
When David McCombie began working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, he immediately realized that the writing style he’d honed at Harvard Law School wasn’t well suited for executive-level communications. “It was the structure of my arguments,” David says. “I was getting feedback that I needed to get to the point more quickly.”

With legal or academic writing, “you’re going to generally start with building up the case, and put the main point all the way at the end,” he says. “But in business communications, it’s best to start with your conclusion first.”

To make his writing more direct and effective, David asked several senior colleagues for all of their past presentations and reports so that he could mimic key elements of their format and style. He also copied trusted colleagues who were particularly skilled communicators on important emails and asked for their feedback.

David has carried these practices to the private equity firm he founded in Miami, the McCombie Group. “I send anything that’s important to my partner and he reads it over,” David says, adding that he knows better than to take the edits personally. “We talk about whether there is a better way to convey an idea, how we can be more succinct.”

Improving his writing has had a direct effect on David’s ability to become an influential voice in his field. He’s currently writing a book on his private equity firm’s niche market, The Family Office Practitioner’s Guide to Direct Investments.

“Even if I knew good business writing from the get-go, I think continually improving your writing and taking it to the next level is absolutely key to success,” David says. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes.”

Case study #2: Study good writing
Tim Glowa had already built a successful career as a strategic marketing consultant when he decided to set his ambitions a little higher. “I wanted to be perceived as a thought leader,” Tim says, “and to do that, I needed to have a point of view and I needed to put that point of view out in public.”

How to Improve Your Business Writing

Is writing not your forte, even though you understand the importance of business writing as a skill set? Not to worry! Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. If this is something you need to work on, know that there are many easy ways you can improve your business writing so that it only continues to get better!

Think About What You Write

Business writing is always intentional, so think about what you want to write before you write it. At the same time, don’t linger on this too much. Write down some main points you want to get across, and then begin writing. Use a tool like Grammarly to help you check for errors, so you don’t get analysis paralysis and then never send it off!


Trim the Fat, Cut the Fluff

Some people struggle with being able to write more and others struggle with writing too much and needing to cut it down. Because business writing should be direct and implicit, read over your writing to make sure you’ve trimmed the fat and cut the fluff. Don’t include anything that doesn’t need to be there. Even if you have a close relationship with your colleague that you’re writing to, it’s important to know to stay professional.

Stay Away from “Grandiose” Vocabulary

Remember, business writing always needs to be reader-friendly. Perhaps you work in the English department at your university and you’re writing an email to your colleagues. In this circumstance, maybe using certain language and vocabulary is okay, because your audience will understand. In general, stay away from complicated terminology UNLESS it’s relevant to your industry.

Practice, Practice, Practice

If you dread business writing, then the bad news is that the only way to get better is to keep practicing. Don’t fret if it’s not perfect; it’s likely your boss already knew this when they hired you and it wasn’t a main concern. But if you want to work in a career that does require stronger business writing skills, you wouldn’t want that to be the one thing standing in the way of pursuing the job you want. So, instead of shying away from business writing whenever possible, instead, jump at the opportunity whenever it arises.

Ask for Help and Take a Business Writing Course

Never be afraid to ask for help from someone else who is more comfortable with business writing. Try to identify what your biggest challenges are with this so you can know what it is you need to work on. Or, ask someone to look at examples of your business writing to see if they have constructive criticism for you. You can also take one of the many business writing courses that are out there if you feel you need more formal instruction.

Business writing is used in nearly every occupation, but some jobs use it much more than others. Regardless, it’s important to be familiar with business writing and work towards improving your own business writing skills as much as you possibly can.

Sources:

https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/business-letters/
https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-to-improve-your-business-writing
https://www.uopeople.edu/blog/what-is-business-writing/

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