Ten Ways to Improve Your Business Writing
by Larry Czaplyski
Ernest Hemingway once wrote “Easy writing makes hard reading.” Not many small business owners aspire to write like Hemingway, but his advice has as much bearing for you as it does for novelists. A casual approach to writing can result in communications that can actually hurt your business and your reputation.
How does this happen? If you are like most small business owners, you assume that your writing is adequate for your daily business communications. Or if you know that your writing is less than adequate, you may avoid writing or do as little of it as possible.
Both of these attitudes can be fatal to your business. They lead to communications that fail to accomplish what they must if your business is to succeed and grow.
We’ve all have read memos, sales letters, proposals, instructions, etc. that are at best confusing and at worst impossible to understand. We toss them in the waste paper basket unless we really need the information they are supposed to contain. Then we read them over and over trying to decipher them. Does this mean this or does it mean that? Eventually, if we cannot figure out what the writer is saying, we give up. That writer has lost our good will and, if we have anything to do about it, our business.
You don’t want to find yourself in that unfortunate position. And you won’t, if you keep in mind the critical importance that written communications can have to your business success.
What follows are ten ways you can improve your writing. Using any one of these will improve your writing dramatically. Use them all and you’ll find that besides getting a reputation for clear and effective writing, you’ll have raised your business communications to a higher and more profitable level.
1. Know your audience
Before you begin to write, consider who your audience is and then aim your writing at that audience. Often there’s a shared background within an audience that lets them understand certain terms and ideas. When you write a memo to sales people, for example, you can use terms and ideas that you couldn’t use if you were writing to engineers or secretaries.
Remember, the reason that you write is to communicate. The burden is on you, the writer, to accomplish this. It is not on your audience.
2. Know What You Want to Say
Before you begin writing, ask yourself what it is you to say. What is the information you need to convey? Decide what this information is and write it down at the top of your paper (or type it at the top of your computer screen).
For example, you may need to send a memo to your salespeople reminding them that their semiannual sales reports are due in three weeks. Write, “I want to tell my salespeople that their biannual sales reports are due in three weeks.”
While this may seem elementary, it is an important step. Often, poor writers will know what it is they want to say, but after sitting down to write, they go off in a completely different direction. This is easy to do because the act of writing brings many different ideas to mind. The statement of purpose will keep you focused and lead naturally to the next step.
3. Use an Outline
After you know what you want to say, decide what supporting information you need to achieve your purpose. Make a list of everything that comes to mind. A number of ideas will probably occur to you. For example, with the semiannual sales report above, you might make the following list?
This list is the frame upon which you’ll construct your communication. It contains all the subjects that you’ll need to cover as you write. You’ll want a separate paragraph for each subject.
4. Use Topic Sentences
A topic sentence introduces a paragraph and is important because it indicates that the paragraph is about. This lets the reader know what kind of information to expect.
After you’ve developed your outline, use it to write the topic sentences that will introduce each paragraph.
Continuing with our example, use the outline list to start the following topic sentences:
Your sales reports are important because…
The information that you need to supply is…
Use the following software to produce your reports…
Your reports are due on the following dates…
If you have any problems with the schedule, please…
5. Keep Paragraphs Short and Focused
Keep all your paragraphs short and focused on the topic sentence. As you write, you’ll find that other ideas and thoughts come up. But if you write ideas down as you think of them, your writing will become confusing and your paragraphs will be too long. You will find yourself losing track of what you are trying to say.
Get into the habit of sticking to only one though in each paragraph. As additional thoughts come, write them down off to the side, or if you’re using a word processor, in parentheses. When you finish, go back to these extra ideas and determine if they support what you want to say. If they do, decide whether they fit within existing paragraphs or if they need their own separate paragraph.
6. Use the Active Voice
Instead of writing, “All sales reports are to be written according to the standards in the Sales Memo of 9/19/91,” write, “Use the standards in the Sales Memo of 9/19/91 when writing your sales reports.”
The active voice is easier to understand than the passive. If you use the active voice, you’ll find your own thinking will become clearer and your readers will have an easier time understanding what you are saying.
7. Use Simple Words
Use words that are easy to understand. Remember, you’re trying to communicate information. Using uncommon or hard-to-understand words will make you writing confusing even if you use them correctly. When readers come upon a difficult word, they are more apt to skip over it than to reach for a dictionary. When that happens, you’ve failed at achieving your purpose.
8. Avoid Hackneyed Phrases
We are all familiar with phrases like pursuant to you letter; herein contain; yours in receipt of; be advised that. These phrases (and all their relatives) are intrinsically confusing and indicate that the writer hasn’t put much thought into his or her writing.
Besides being the mark of the poor communicator, hackneyed phrases frustrate effective communication. When a reader comes across one of these tired phrases, the natural impulse is to look beyond it to something that captures interest. This often means missing important information located near the banal phrase.
Always write a first draft. When it is finished, edit your writing. Look for typos and sentences that don’t make sense. Check your spelling. If your word processor has a spelling checker, use it.
10. Read Out Loud
Be sure to read your communication out loud. Often, a paragraph that doesn’t sound right has an underlying structural or logical fault. If it doesn’t sound right, find out why.
If you have the time, place your communication off to the side for a day or two before you re-read it. You’ll be surprised at how it looks after this brief period.
Any one of these tips can improve your written communications. Use them all and you’ll find that you have significantly increased the odds for succeeding at your business.