Tips on Business Writing

To be a good business writer you need to get the reader to the destination by the shortest route possible. Unlike creative writing, business writing is most effective when it is “austere.” Good business writing is terse, well-organized, and most of all, easy to read.

Get Organized!

  • There are three reasons to communicate with another human being: to inform, to persuade, and to entertain. Business writing typically falls in the first two categories. Before you start the journey, make sure you know what the destination is.
  • Analyze your audience. How familiar are they with the subject matter? At what level of detail do they need to know the subject matter to make a decision? What’s in it for them? Why do they need (or want) to read this document?
  • Loop and group. Gather like information together, and provide it in a logical fashion. Generally you will need at least three “sections” to a business correspondence:
    • An introduction (including a “grabber” lead off sentence) to tell the reader what the correspondence is about
    • The body of information the reader needs to know
    • A conclusion (which may also include a call to action).

Use Plenty of White Space.

  • Take a break often. If you think it’s time for a new paragraph, it probably is.
  • Use bullets and numbered lists.
  • Use parallel structure (Try to start with a verb for each bullet. At least start each bullet with the same part of speech).

Use Simple Declarative Sentences.

  • Tell most of your story as who does what to whom.
  • Use complex and compound sentences when you must, but try to rewrite text so they are not needed.
  • Mix sentences well. There are no definitive rules for how much of each type of sentence you use. Try something like 75:20:5 (75% simple, 20% complex, and 5% compound).
  • Don’t hang clauses off of clauses. If you lead the reader off on too many trails, they will weary of the chase.

Be Terse. Use Verbs. 

  • Verbs are the engines of sentences; everything else is cargo. Your objective should be to increase the “thrust to weight ratio” of your writing.
  • Put verbs into prominent positions in the sentences. The most active sentence is pure verb: “Go!” Of course, you can overdo this. “Come. Look. See. We go.” is something you’d expect Tonto to say to the Lone Ranger.
  • Don’t hide the verb inside a noun. Instead of saying, “The smothering of the verb is a cause of the weakening of the sentence impact.” say “ Smothered verbs weaken sentence impact.”
  • Don’t use nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns. You make an impact.
  • Use the active voice. Use passive voice as often as using the reverse gear in your car. It’s necessary at times, but rarely does one make an entire trip this way.
  • Use the present tense. If you still do something, then you are still doing it. If something is still true, then it has not ceased to be true. To say, “I developed processes to test the structural limits of wing spars.” implies that this is no longer part of your job description.
  • Use the simple past tense instead of complex. There is no difference between (“I have developed processes” and “I developed processes” except an extra word that can be stumbled over by the reader.
  • Finally, don’t split infinitives. Not only is this bad grammar, it also weakens the sentence.
    • “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” has no impact. No particular word stands out.
    • “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” says the same thing, but you are forced to emphasize the word “boldly.”
    • Equally correct from a grammatical standpoint is, “To go where no man has gone before boldly.” However, the adverb is so far away from the verb, it’s difficult to tell which verb it’s modifying.

Be Clear

  • Repeat the subject if you must to clarify action. “John told Harry to drive his car to work.” Whose car? It might be awkward, but far more preferable to remove the doubt. “John told Harry to drive John’s car to work.” Gender specific pronouns are usually a problem, but in this case they actually help. “John told Mary to drive his car to work.”
  • Repeat the subject periodically to remind the reader what the pronoun means. If you are talking about a person often in a document such as a performance review, you might want to repeat their name every third to fifth time. Instead of “Harry ... He ... he ... his ... he ... his ... him ... he.” Try something like: “Harry ... He ... he... Harry’s ... he ... his ... him ... Harry.” It’s small stuff, but it adds variety to reading, and it emphasizes what or who you are selling.

Use Headers, Tables and Bullets.

  • Headers make things stand out.
  • Tables and bullets organize data and force you to use white space.

Use Appendices and Attachments.

  • Sometimes you will have to provide a lot of supporting evidence or when writing for a general audience, you may have to provide background material for those less familiar with the topic.
  • Use the main document as your sales brochure and put the details in “the back of the book.” If people need detail, they will look for it. If they don’t need it, don’t make them wade through it. They most likely will not read the document at all.

Epilogue

According to legend, Henry Kissenger was a harsh taskmaster. He once called a subordinate to his office and waved a report that the subordinate had written in the air. Henry bellowed, “Is this the best you can do?” The subordinate muttered some excuse, took the report and revised it.

Once again the report was submitted and Henry called the subordinate and asked, “Is this the best you can do?” Again the subordinate left with downcast head.

On the third submission, Henry asked again, “Is this the best you can do?” The subordinate replied, “I’m sorry, Mr. Kissenger, but that’s the best I can do.” Henry replied, “Good! Now I’ll read it!”

Make sure that whenever you submit something, it is the best you can do.