A significant portion of your time at work is spent writing something or other. Now think of how much time you waste trying to read poorly written business documents. I bet you felt frustrated and annoyed that you had to take precious time out to decipher poorly written missives.
The self-righteous scream judgments against others to hide the noise of skeletons dancing in their own closets – John Mark Green
As you are judging others, they are simultaneously judging you on your writing. Business writing (or professional writing) is the primary medium used to convey your ideas throughout your working life.
Communicate your thoughts in the clearest, most succinct way.
That’s where this guide comes in.
What are business writing skills?
Business writing skills (or professional writing skills) are a set of techniques used to communicate information clearly and professionally through the written word in a business setting.
Common types of documents used by businesses
- Cover letters
- Client proposals
- Press releases
- Web or blog articles
- Social media posts
Importance of business writing skills
Having great business writing skills:
- Enables you to convey your message clearly
- Prevents confusion and misinterpretation
- Impresses co-workers, bosses and clients
- Makes you look smarter, more authoritative and professional
- Enables you to persuade others on your ideas
- Avoids wasted time replying to clarification emails from people who didn’t understand what your initial message was saying
A lack of clarity could put the brakes on any journey to success – Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and being Free
Now let’s see how you can write well-organized, clear business documents.
Effective Business Writing Skills: What are the core principles for writing well?
Define your reason
Ask yourself these questions:
- Who am I writing for? Is this meant for my boss, my team or clients? Tailor your writing style based on your target readers.
- What is my reason for writing? Is it only to pass on information? More likely, it is to convince someone to take action on something. It is the latter that requires skill and planning.
- What is the core message I want to convey? There is usually only one core message that is most important. Focus on this one message. Busy people skim and never read all the words so keep it short and succinct.
- How best to write this? Research and outline. Free apps like Dynalist and Freemind help you to plan your thoughts in a structured way for more complicated business documents.
- What action do I want my readers to take? Is it to reply to your email? Or to action a task? End your document with a clear ‘call to action’ so your readers understand what they need to do.
Use clear and concise language
Big men use little words, little men use big words – Winston Churchill
Use the simplest words possible.
Construct the shortest sentences possible.
Clean and concise language has power that lengthy writing lacks.
Use active voice to add power to your ideas. Active sentences are direct and authoritative. Passive sentences are weak and wordy.
No one likes long business documents. It’s an adult lullaby. Get your ideas across before your reader zones out. This way, they will quickly understand your message and take the action you want.
Pro tip: In business writing, your goal is to convey your core message clearly, not show off a big vocabulary.
Make your point up front
The average attention span is now 8 seconds (less than the attention span of a goldfish). Present your core message up front. Once you catch your reader’s attention, then you can go into detail. If you lose your audience in the opener, the rest of your writing will be wasted.
Remember BLOT – bottom line on top. Your introductory statement should be the core message you identified during planning. Your concluding statement is your call to action.
Clarify your call to action
It’s rare that you would write anything that is purely informational. Chances are, you need your reader to do something after reading your message.
Be clear about what you want them to do and they will do it. Leave it up to them to figure out and you won’t get the results you want.
Edit like an old schoolmarm
In other words, edit with cut-throat ferocity.
Shorten your writing
Re-read your writing and ‘cut the fat’. Every word you use needs to be useful towards making your point. Cull unnecessary words and sentences.
Delete words like take, give, have, make, conduct, -iom and –ment near a verb. They are redundant and weaken an otherwise strong verb.
These free online tools help to summarize your writing:
The Writer’s Diet. Copy and paste up to 1000 words at a time to test if your writing is flabby or fit. The tool also gives you suggestions on how to improve.
The Hemingway App (named after Ernest) highlights writing issues and suggests improvements.
Is your document easy to read? What formatting enhancements would make it easier to skim?
Add headings, subheadings and bullet lists as needed. Shorten paragraphs and ensure lots of white space.
Would an illustration, table or graph clarify your points? Add them in.
Adjust your tone
Does your writing match your readers’ needs? You would write differently for university professors as opposed to blue collar workers.
Does your message sound professional or conversational? Does it convey warmth or did you just freeze a snowman’s heart?
Was your writing confident and authoritative? Or was it hesitant?
The free Tone Analyzer uses linguistic analysis to define the tone of in your text.
Always be professional. Use full words instead of short forms like etc. and e.g. Avoid texting abbreviations like LMK (let me know) and NVM (never mind).
Definitely avoid writing anything that you wouldn’t want anyone else to see, for example, office gossip or inappropriate jokes. Ask yourself “would I be comfortable if this was sent out to everyone else?”
Remove all jargon and buzz words
Industry-specific buzzwords are so prevalent in business writing that most people don’t even realize they are using them. However, jargon doesn’t add value. Clear and simple words convey the message better.
Correct grammar and sentence structure
Use Microsoft Word’s built in grammar checker or a digital writing assistant like Grammarly that can be used with most writing programs, emails and social media sites. Grammarly not only corrects your spelling and grammar, it also detects the tone of your message and automatically checks for plagiarism.
This interesting read gives an example of how a manager goes from his first rough memo draft to the final version.
Longer, more complicated business documents benefit from having a second opinion. Send the initial draft to trusted associates to get unbiased opinions. Then, revise your document based on their feedback.
Pro tip: Consider all suggestions but ultimately you decide on which recommendations you incorporate into your final document.
Once you’re done with your final revision, send your document off, secure in the knowledge that you’ve written it well.
How to improve your business writing skills?
Take a course
With so much of your time at work spent writing professional documents, it is amazing how little training most people receive. Taking a course to learn business writing skills in a structured way will give you an advantage over others.
This Business Writing course is taught by Dr Quentin McAndrew from University of Colorado Boulder and has a 4.8 star rating on Coursera.
Read business writing books
Recommended business writing books:
- HBR guide to better Business Writing
- Writing that Works
- The Only Business Writing Book you’ll ever need
Here are 15 more business writing books to help you master business writing.
Read business writing blogs and industry blogs
Recommended business writing blogs:
- The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University has a large library of free writing resources
- Instructional Solutions’ Business Writing Info Blog
- Grammar Girl
Take note of how others write
Pay attention to writing styles of colleagues and bosses. Incorporate helpful strategies into your own writing arsenal.
The more you write, the better you will get. Writing is a skill and skills improve with practice.
Revise and reflect on your words
Was your message clear? Was it appropriate for your target audience? How did they respond to it? How can you improve?
Ask for feedback
Ask colleagues, friends, bosses and even clients for feedback. Don’t take it as criticism, Instead, consider their opinions and improve on your writing.
Over to you
Even if you think you are a good business writer, continually improving on your writing and taking it to the next level is the key to success.
If you found this guide helpful, share it with your colleagues.