As high-school and college students, many people tend to think that there is no easy and straightforward answer to the question “How to be a good writer?” so why bothering looking for it. After all, they need writing skills only for these couple of years until the degree is obtained, and after that, their written communication will be limited to Facebook messages and Twitter posts. Hold on, and what about writing memos and proposals to clients, business letters, executive summaries, plans, and a lot of other texts all people in the business world have to write? Contrary to some students’ misconception, writing is an integral part of business life and good knowledge of business writing style and structure is absolutely essential at work.
This quick guide was designed as a crash course in business writing for those who did not get a chance to master their writing skills back in college. We have prepared a few effective writing strategies that will help you turn every text into a gem of business communication.
Modern employees experience much stress at work, so they think that additional tasks aimed at improving writing skills will be the last straw. However, studying can be easy and fun. The first thing you need is motivation. Just think about it: intelligent sentences, coherence, and logical development of ideas are critical in effective communication, so outstanding writing skills basically mean writing for success. The same idea was once expressed in Marvin Swift’s famous phrase “Clear writing means clear thinking.” A senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management develops this idea by saying that having the most brilliant ideas in the world will not get you anywhere if you cannot express them effectively. Fortunately, for everyone seeking improvement, the people’s capacity for personal development is limitless. In his book The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, Bryan Garner says that writing is not an inborn talent; it is a skill, which means it can be acquired and developed. This is a quick explanation of how to make every piece of writing successful.
Step 1: Think before Writing
Before your fingers hit the keyboard, spend a couple minutes contemplating the content of your piece. Many inexperienced writers make their texts premature just because they start too early. Construction of ideas from scratch in the process of writing results in poor structure, rambling ideas, and repetitions. However, a quick plan of the future message can improve the result significantly. Just ask yourself what it is that you wish to achieve with this message and what is the central idea you would like to convey. If there is no answer, maybe your pace is too fast. In this case, step back and gather your thoughts.
Step 2: Make Yourself Clear
Explain your purpose right away. The writing style developed in high school will not work in the world of business because postponing the request till the middle of the massage is not acceptable any more. Instead, a skillful business writer avoids tangential information and concisely presents the purpose of writing first, leaving up the rest of the text for argumentation and rationale. In longer pieces of writing, such as proposals, explain the recommendation in around 150 words on the first page. Although business writing is different from academic writing, the rule of good introduction works here, as well. If the beginning of the paper is not effective, the result will be likewise.
Step 3: Keep It Brief and to the Point
Wordiness is another enemy of business writing. What is business writing? It is a means of communication in a business world. What do people in the business world do? They work. People who work do not have time for unnecessary words, so do not use four words when you can convey the same message with just one. A critical analysis will help find the words in your text that bring nothing but length. Do not hesitate to delete every such word or phrase. For example, you do not have to say ‘quite appropriate’ if ‘appropriate’ will do. The second the readers realize that there are too many redundancies in the text they stop treating it seriously. Garner recommends avoiding prepositions where possible (e.g. point of view = viewpoint), using verbs instead of –ion nouns (e.g., provided definition = defined), and replacing to be + adjective with a stronger verb (e.g., is characteristic of = characterizes).
Step 4: Do not Use Jargon and Bizspeak Words
The list of industry-specific acronyms is long and many of them are very helpful in spoken language, however, their appearance in business writing is a sign of lazy thinking. Overuse them in your message and the reader might think that it was created by a robot, or worse, that you have no idea what you are talking about. While jargon does not make the writer look smarter, clear and succinct text has always been an indication of the writer’s style and good taste. Garner has even created a jargon blacklist and recommends avoiding such words and phrases as ‘forward initiative’, ‘incentivize’, ‘recontextualize’ and many other so common in the business world. Obfuscated language does not have the potential of making the writer seem more intelligent. The message itself does.
Step 5: Proofread and Edit
Never send your pieces of writing to the target reader unless they are proofread and edited, be it a business plan, memo, or an everyday e-mail to a colleague. Proofreading is probably the most underestimated step out of all writing stages although it is vital since even minor typos can be extremely embarrassing. Apart from paying attention to grammar and mechanics, ask yourself the following questions:
Is my piece well structured?
Is my central message clear?
Is the text free of redundancies and overly complicated syntactic constructions?
Many experienced writers also recommend reading the texts aloud because it allows spotting the imperfections that you might miss when simply reading to yourself. For example, reading the text aloud, you will definitely hear the sentences that are cumbersome or clunky. It is also a good idea to ask your colleague or friend to read your writing and provide you with the feedback, however harsh it might be. Remember that their request for editing is an act of friendship rather than aggression. If you do not have a possibility to receive such a feedback often, at least ask for it if the written piece is of high importance, like a proposal to partners or CEO.
Step 6: Practice Regularly
Similar to other skills, writing skills have to be practiced. Cultivate a habit of reading quality material on a daily basis and try to pay attention to the word choice, structure, and the means used by the writer to achieve coherence. For example, you can start by exploring the style of the publications in The Wall Street Journal. Apart from that, a good style guide and grammar reference book are a reasonable investment. While active reading is an easy way to sharpen your skills, active practice, such as editing and writing, are essential for progress. The changes will occur only if you find time to regularly write and revise every piece. Although this process is not quick, it is effective because the improvements you notice will not disappear, once you become a good business writer, you will stay one.
- Plan your texts before writing to make them clear and coherent.
- Avoid redundancies and tangential information
- Proofread and remove jargon and bizspeak words.
- Believe anyone saying that good writers are born, not made
- Deceive yourself thinking that the first draft is flawless or passable. There is always room for improvement
- Introduce your argument further than in the introductory paragraph.
Case study: Practice Makes Perfect
When Laurel McKinsey started working as a management consultant, she soon realized that the writing style they studied at the University of Minnesota Law School was not appropriate for communication at the executive level. “I understood that something was wrong after receiving a feedback that my point was difficult to discern,” Laurel says. “I then realized that my arguments were poorly structured. The problem stems from legal writing, where you do not present the main point until you have described the case in all details. In business communication, however, the conclusion comes first.”
To improve her skills, Laurel asked some of her senior colleagues to share their reports and presentations with her so that she could analyze their styles and mimic some elements. She also borrowed some techniques from colleagues who were regarded as the best communicators in the company. Additionally, she regularly asked some trusted colleagues for feedback.
After a few months of practice, Laurel’s skills improved tremendously and she soon noticed that her voice in the company gained more importance, as well.
When asked how to be a good writer, Laurel says that the only thing you have to do is practice. The more you invest, the more you get. Luckily, it is a valuable transferrable skill which makes you a step ahead other employees in any company.