Clarity and comprehension should be the goal of all business communication — not because we're striving for literary heights, but because good writing improves your bottom line.
Here are 25 tips, in no particular order, for clearer, more concise, more readily understood writing.
Clear writing requires clear thinking
Think before you write. Jot down ideas on a notepad. Flesh out those ideas so they become notes. Arrange the notes so they form a logical progression of thought.
Don't get caught up with stylistic flourishes — write what comes naturally in a simple, clear fashion. Your goal is to be concise, lucid and direct.
A clear structure helps you write and your reader read
If it's a short piece, try the inverted pyramid approach: put the single most important point in the first sentence; follow with secondary or qualifying facts; and finally supply background or history. If your reader doesn't get past the first sentence (which is no reflection on your writing), at least they have the single most important point to take away.
An alternative for longer writing is IMRAD: introduction, methodology, results and discussion.
Or the oft-cited and approachable: tell them what you're going to say, say it, then telll them what you've said.
Stick to your structure. If it's not working, review each point: perhaps something is in the wrong order. Or, most likely, there's a single irrelevant point that's throwing everything else out of whack.
Don't get stuck trying to find the 'right' word
Read the sentence or the paragraph out loud — often this will prompt the 'right' word to reveal itself.
But if it doesn't, move on. Use another word, even a nonsense word, and come back to it. Few of us in business have the time to sweat over every crystalline expression.
Good writing is not simply written — it's rewritten
The three golden rules of good writing are Edit, Edit, and Edit.
Read more and read widely
Your writing will not improve if all you read is Facebook or Twitter. That's not being snobbish, it's just the nature of the medium.
Find a couple of favourite authors, commentators or journalists. What draws you to their writing? Why are they your favourites? I am not suggesting you try to emulate the world's great novelists and give up if you fall short; but study what they do with words and why their writing works.
Go easy on the STYLING
Computers make it all too easy to experiment with fonts and other style conventions. In regular writing, this rarely adds to comprehension. Here's a few pointers proven over a century of typesetting:
- ALL CAPS IS HARD TO READ WHEN USED FOR EXTENDED BLOCKS OF TEXT SUCH AS SENTENCES.
- Serif typefaces are easier to read than sans serif type in regular writing. There is some evidence that sans serif type may be easier to read in AV presentations (e.g. Powerpoint) if reversed out of a dark background (i.e. white type on a black or dark background).
- Unless you're a skilled typesetter, paragraphs set ragged right are easier to read than set justified.
Write for your readers
Remember, the goal of writing, particularly business writing, is to communicate to your customers.
It's easy to get caught up in your own expertise and forget that your readers may not share the same knowledge. In such cases you may be sweating over information only you understand, and noone else. Which, of course, makes the whole exercise a waste of time.
Constantly ask yourself: Who is this information for? Is it important to them? Is it clear? Otherwise, you're merely writing, not communicating.
Most business writing isn't about the beauty of its prose: it's about effectively communicating a message (a pitch, a prompt, a request) quickly, accurately and succinctly. To do this, you need to show your readers how different parts of your writing relate to each other.
There should be a natural flow from one sentence to the next, establishing a clear, logical order from paragraph to paragraph. Connecting phrases such as as a result, in consequence, in contrast help readers follow your progression.
Headings, too, help readers follow your train of thought. In fact, some readers may only read the headings, or skim them to see if the article is worth reading in full, so make them count.
Use active verbs where appropriate
Active verbs (also referred to as the active voice) are doing words: France beat Croatia in the World Cup final, rather than Croatia was beaten by France.
In the first instance the subject (France) of the verb (beat) is doing the action; in the second instance the subject (Croatia) is having something done to them.
In scholarly articles, the passive voice may be preferable (and unavoidable), but in business writing, especially sales writing, the active voice makes for a faster moving pitch, better rhythm, more engaging reading and turns calls to action into a command, rather than a request.
Check your grammar
Yes, you know the difference between their, there and they're, and than and then, and your and you're. But even the best writers slip up from time to time. And what may be a slip up or typo to you, may look like ignorance or carelessness to your readers.
For the sake of a little time spent proofreading, is it really worth the risk of looking ignorant and careless?
Use simple words
Business writing isn't Scrabble: you don't get extra points for using long words. Use start instead of commence, near rather than in close proximity, bugbear rather than bette noir.
Many writers (and not just amateur writers) are fixated by the notion that big words make you seem clever, that long words equate with intellect. They're wrong.
Fattening your copy with bloated words runs two risks: you use a given word incorrectly; and you lose your audience. In other words, you come across as a self-important, boring, ignorant old fart. Is that really the brand you're aiming for?
Use short sentences
Short sentences have impact.
They're easy to read and easy to understand.
Lots of writers tend to ramble. It may be that they get sidetracked by a notion — like the derivation of the word 'ramble' which was originally used, and is still used, especially in the UK, to describe a pleasurable walk in the countryside, but can equally mean to talk or write at length in a confused or inconsequential way — or they labour over the lengthy exposition of a subject that doesn't really need explaining.
Point is: don't do it.
Don't neglect punctuation
Good punctuation makes for effortless reading and clarity; poor punctuation leads to a stop-and-start, staccato rhythm that hinders comprehension even if the words themselves are clear.
Pay especial attention to commas and full points. These regulate the flow of your writing and help clarify your message.
Write. Then edit.
Writing and editing are two different mental processes. Don't try to write and edit at the same time. It may sound more efficient, but it's not. You'll get a better result if you write, let it rest, and come back a day later with your editor head screwed on.
Get to the point
In business writing, brevity is key. If you find yourself waffling, take a break, imagine yourself face-to-face with your customer, and note your answers to these three questions:
- The reason for writing is ...
- What I want you to know is ...
- What I want you to do is ...
With those answers to help you focus, get back to it.
Learn from an eight-year-old
Recently my eight-year-old daughter asked me, "Why can't I start a sentence with And or But?"
The answer is: You can.
I can also recall being taught that starting a sentence with a conjunction (and, but, or) was poor writing. Forty years later and I am surprised that this is still being taught. There is no foundation or justification for this oft-cited 'rule'.
Learn even more from an eight-year-old
Einstein once said, "If you can't explain it to an eight-year-old, you don't understand it yourself."
Food for thought.
Be a storyteller
Pixar is one of the most successful animated feature film studios in history. Here's their guide for would-be writers (in its entirety):
Once upon a time there was a ___. Every day ___. One day ___. Because of that ____. And because of that ___. Until finally ___.
Humans are drawn to stories. Where possible, be a storyteller.
Watch the flab, fluff and filler
Remember, business writing is about clarity, conciseness and communication. Ditch any words that aren't pulling their weight. Here's some flab phrases to look out for:
- Each and every day...
- In order to...
- Basically, essentially, totally, completely, literally, actually.
- As a matter of fact...
- For all intents and purposes...
- For the most part ...
Dump the adverbs
Except in calls to action, adverbs seldom add value to business writing. Use a stronger verb instead. Rather than ran quickly, use darted; rather than cried pitifully, use wept or wailed. As Stephen King said, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."
Ditch the thesaurus
Get a dictionary instead. Good business writing is rarely improved with arcane synonyms.
Read with your ears
Reading aloud is a great way to get a feel for how your audience will read your writing. It will also help you pick up typos and other errors that cause a stumble or break in flow.
Get into the groove
The best writing has a rhythm and groove to it that propels the reader forward.
Breaking that rhythm with a well-placed STOP! can add weight to your call to action and jars the reader into taking notice.
Less is less, more is more
There is absolutely no rationale behind the less-is-more argument for shorter copy. The reasoning behind such hubris (other than simple repetition) is that people — especially business people — are time poor and don't have time to read a lengthy sales pitch.
That's horseshit. Because it's a faulty argument.
Brevity, getting to the point, short sentences, avoiding rambling — none of these has anything to do with the physical length of your copy.
The question you should be asking is: How important is this pitch to my customer? How important is this pitch to me?
Noone is going to fork out $500,000 for a Rolls Royce based on a sales pitch whose writer tried to get the sale in 50 words or less. It's an absurd notion.
In fact, many of the best copywriters believe there's no such thing as too much copy. So long as it's well structured, gets your main pitch across quickly, and contains appropriate calls to action, then there's no formula for how much is too much, and there's no damage in writing too much.
There is, however, damage in writing too little.
Good writing is a skill
In numerous business surveys, writing is consistently identified as one of the least favoured tasks and one that most people feel least equipped to do well.
And, unfortunately, it shows. Written communications — especially sales, especially promotions — are some of your most visible marketing and branding assets (or liabilities). You may not get praise when your writing is good, but when it’s bad it is sure to be noticed and noted.
If writing isn’t your strength (and remember, you’re not alone), or you’re too busy, or it’s just not something you like … whatever the reason, get in touch. Unlike most, writing is something we actually enjoy.