When I went to school we studied Macbeth, Lord of the Flies, John Donne and Yeats. Wonderful stuff but not much use when you got into the real world.
Most of us were never taught how to how to write business letters.
Instead we learnt by reading other business documents, saw what worked, and tried to weave the best parts into our proposals, case studies, and marketing materials.
But we’re kind of working in the dark. We have a sense of what we need to say, but not sure if we’re on track.
Well, I do anyway.
For that reason, I’ve studied the mechanics of business writing for almost twenty years. And I’m still no expert, believe me!
Saying that, here are four ways you can improve almost any type of business document.
1. Start with the most important point
Avoid ‘throat clearing’. Say hi and then get to the point. For example, if you’re writing an email, say something like,
Can we meet on Thursday at 3 at HQ to discuss the product x marketing plan?
There’s a few things to note here:
I specifically asked a question. Why? I want to reader to confirm (or reject) if they can meet at that specific time for that specific project. I don’t want to start email ping pong.
This also warms up the reader to what’s coming next. Stating your goal at the start helps the reader orient themselves and creates expectations of what follows.
By the way, keep it short. Write the opening line with the same clarity as you’d write a one line summary.
2. Use visual formatting
Next, how to map the information.
In high school, you were encouraged to write large blocks of text, use long paragraphs, and fill the page. In business, the opposite applies.
We scan for information.
Remember the person looking at your, for example, marketing plan isn’t really ‘reading’ your document – their scanning.
Isn’t that what you do?
You scan through the headings, looking for words and phrases.
With this in mind, use headings, bullet lists, and the occasional formatting, such as bolding, to help the reader navigate through the document.
This works in almost all types of documents. The exception may be business proposals where you are told to use specific headings. But you can get around this limitation by adding your own subheadings.
Again, think of what happens when you open a PFD report and see large blocks of text.
“Oh, God, here we go…”
…compared to nicely formatted pages with lots of white space – which lets the text flow and breath – and the occasional image or table to break things up.
Write to be scanned!
3. Write in a natural voice
“Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.” – Winston Churchill
You often hear it said, ‘write the way you talk’. Well don’t.
If we did that our documents would be littered with ‘you know, like, um, ah, well,’ and so on.
Instead, adopt a calm, courteous tone. Write the way you’d like someone to talk to you. Polite, helpful, and to the point.
I think what tends to happen, especially when starting out, is that we adopt words and phrases from our peers, assuming this is the correct way to write. They’re probably copying those before them and those before them.
Instead, commit yourself to clear, positive, and jargon-free writing. This will really make your work stand out.
Try to use short words instead of long, flowery ones. For example, use ‘buy’ instead of ‘procure.’
There’s many good reason to use short words.
- It encourages the reader to respond in the same language, which is usually clearer and speeds things along.
- It shows the reader that you’re not talking down to them, using flowery words instead of everyday terms.
- It builds trust. We don’t trust people who try to ‘fast talk’ us. We suspect they’re trying to deceive us, which makes us wary of responding.
4. Learn to power edit.
“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” – Blaise Pascal
After writing (and editing) for twenty years, I *expect* to find errors in what I’ve written. Sometimes there isn’t, but my attitude is to check and check again before I send it out.
Here’s what I do:
- Read it from the last line back up to the top. Why? This stops you reading automatically. Instead you will be able to judge each sentence individually and make the necessary corrections.
- Again, if you have time, or if it’s critical, print it out and use a ruler to review each line, working up to the top. Hard work but worth it.
- Read it aloud. This takes time but is one of the most effective ways to check how the narrative flows, how it sounds, and if there are any gaps. No spell checker will catch this!
- Next, select all the text (Ctrl+A).
- Double-click the Language option and select US English. Why? I often receive documents from overseas clients whose language settings will be different. This ‘confuses’ the spell checker. Apply the same language to the entire document and then spell check it.
- If you have time, print it out. Formatting errors you missed on the PC, for example, numbering in the footer is easier to see when printed out. This is also a good way to see what happens when your client prints out the document. If you accidentally embedded fonts, and their printer doesn’t have these fonts, it will undermine your work and credibility.
- Start with the most important point.
- Use visual formatting. Write to be scanned!
- Write in a natural voice.
- Learn to power edit.
What else would you add?