Improve Your Business Writing
Originally published: 09.01.17 by Chuck Eddy
10 tips to deliver information and persuade others to your point of view
People who write for a living are notorious procrastinators — not because they don’t love what they do, but because even for those with skill and experience, writing is difficult. For those who write less often for business purposes, it can devolve into pure torture.
Whether you’re tasked with a memo, letter or report, follow the 10 tips below to improve your writing (and maybe even your enjoyment of the process).
1. Give yourself enough time.
Experieced writers know how to speed up the writing process, but even they run into roadblocks in getting their work done. If you don’t do a lot of writing, or are less confident in your skills, make sure you allow plenty of lead-time to write, edit and polish your work.
Even a letter might take a few hours to pull together, and one of the keys to effective writing is allowing yourself enough time to put your work aside for a day or two (or at least an hour or two) and go back to it with fresh eyes.
2. Consider audience and goals.
Who are you writing for? What do you want to say? What do you want to accomplish? Answering those questions will dictate the content (the information you include), language (your word choices) and tone (relative formality or informality) of your work.
3. Outline your work.
This is particularly important for longer pieces. Most of us were taught to outline our compositions in school for good reason: outlining helps you clarify your thoughts and develop a roadmap for your writing.
Even if you’re drafting a brief letter, jot down a few bullet points about what you want to cover to make sure you include all your points. For a longer piece, such as a report, develop a more formal outline. That upfront investment in time will pay off in the end, because you’ll find that writing (like many projects) goes faster when you plan and organize at the start.
4. Overcome writer’s block.
Following the first three tips should help you get started. But if you’ve done your planning and still don’t know where to begin, start in the middle. Don’t try to shape an opening (difficult) or closing (more difficult).
Begin your draft by tackling the meat of your content: the three points you want to make in your memo, for example. By the time you get them on paper, you’ll often find that the beginning and ending take care of themselves.
5. Write simply.
You’re writing to communicate something of importance to you and your audience. Why obscure your meaning with complexity? Instead, use fewer, shorter words and simple sentences.
6. Learn active voice.
Learn it — and use it. In active voice, the subject of your sentence is acting, while in passive voice, the subject is acted on. Consider these two sentences:
Active: John installed a new HVAC system in the old office building.
Passive: The HVAC system was installed in the old office building by John.
In the first sentence, the subject (John) is acting; in the second, the subject (the HVAC system) is acted on. The system can’t install itself; John must do it. Active voice results in short, direct and lively sentences, which simplify your writing and make it more engaging.
7. Brush up on punctuation.
If you Google the phrase “misused punctuation marks,” you’ll find hundreds of articles and blog posts and a lot of passionate feeling on the topic.
While fussing about punctuation (and spelling, for that matter) in an era of texts and emojis might seem quaint, misplaced punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence. That interferes with communication.
We can’t review the complete rules of punctuation here, so do some online research or invest in a book that covers them. If you want a few quick tips, consider these guidelines on three often-misused types of punctuation:
Exclamation points. You seldom, if ever, need them in business letters, memos and reports.
Quotation marks. Unless you’re quoting someone or including the title of a piece that’s part of a larger work (such as an article in a magazine), you probably don’t need them.
Semi-colons. They join two complete sentences that are related to each other. Look at the last paragraph of tip No. 6 for two examples.
8. Format your document.
Now that you’ve outlined your writing, simplified it and punctuated it correctly, it’s time to think about your audience again. Even a business letter, let alone a report, can be difficult to read when it’s just a mass of type. Consider adding:
- Space between paragraphs (instead of paragraph indents)
- Bullets or numbers to set off lists (like this one) or points you want to make
- Boldface type to emphasize information
- Subheads to introduce sections of content
- Page numbers, particularly for those who still print and save hard copies.
Those devices and others highlight your main points and help readers navigate your document.
9. Find an editor/proofreader.
Allowing time between writing and editing gives you a new perspective on what you drafted and makes improving it easier. But even better: identify a colleague who can help you with your work.
Having a sounding board for ideas is great, but finding someone who also has a solid command of the written word and good editing skills is even better. Look to your communications or marketing department for professional resources, or tap into that workmate who always nails his or her memos and reports.
A dispassionate review of your writing before you email it off can make a critical difference on quality and results.
10. Use online tools.
You’re already familiar with spellcheck, no doubt, but consider more targeted or comprehensive tools that can improve your writing. These three cover the bases and are easy to use:
grammarly.com — You can download a free version or pay for the premium one. The free version fixes critical grammar, spelling and punctuation errors.
merriam-webster.com — This is a great resource to check spelling, the meaning of words and alternatives.
quickanddirtytips.com — Grammar Girl offers clear and helpful writing tips.
If you follow these suggestions, your writing will improve. More important, so will your ability to deliver information and persuade others to your point of view — which boosts your reputation and ultimately your career success.
Your audience wins and you win: big reasons why good writing at work is worth worrying about.