Six essential tips for business writing

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Yes, we know you know how to write. But writing and communicating just isn’t the same thing.

It’s easy to mistake simplistic writing for direct writing. It’s also easy to assume anything more than simplistic writing is superfluous when it comes to business. That’s plain wrong, argues Carolyn O’Hara, writing in the Harvard Business Review; business writing is a distinct skill, with six main elements to remember.

1. Think before you write

Putting pen to paper helps many of us start thinking, but it’s actually best to pause at this point. “Ask yourself”, comments O’Hara “What should my audience know or think after reading this email, proposal, or report? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, you’re moving too quickly”. Thinking while you write tends to produce unstructured and repetitive arguments.

2. Be direct

Don’t make your readers wait for your point. Creative writing may call for building suspense, but business writing demands we make an argument, and then spend the bulk of our writing backing it up. Bryan Garner, author of The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, argues you must be able to summarize your point in your first 150 words.

3. Cut the fat

Cutting words generally comes down to common sense, but there are some tricks you can use. Delete propositions (point of view becomes viewpoint), replace –ion words with action verbs (provided protection to becomes protected); use contractions (don’t instead of do not and we’re instead of we are); and swap is, are, was and were with stronger verbs (indicates rather than is indicative of).

4. Avoid jargon and $10 words

Brokers should already be expert at tailoring the level of jargon to the listener, and writing should be no exception. Do be wary, however, of using a big word or buzzword (i.e. ‘actionable’) because you don’t quite understand the point you’d like to make. Spell out what you want to say and only then go through the cutting suggestions above.

5. Read what you write

Take a short break after writing and then look at your work again. You may want to try reading passages out loud, or better still ask a friend or colleague to look at your work. Ask them what argument they saw in the piece. This should be the same as your argument from step 1.

6. Practice every day

Look at what you’ve been reading recently. Novels and advertising material are unlikely to improve your business writing style, because they are written with very different objectives in mind. Reading a newspaper with a rigid style guide (many of which you can find on the internet) is a good way to see how professional writers use the rules above in practice.

Read the O’Hara’s original article on the HBR's website.

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