One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
Top tips for better business writing
All good writing communicates with readers in a personal way. Good business writing, whether it is a report written for an employer or an email to a client, does that quickly and effectively. You do not need to use overly formal language; it is better to use a neutral style that is akin to conversation, but rather more organized.
Above all, present your information logically and helpfully, so that readers are in no doubt what your message is—and what, if anything, you want them to do in response.
1 Put your main points first
In business, your colleagues and clients value their time as much as you do yours. You will save them and yourself time by stating your key points right at the beginning, rather than burying them somewhere later on for readers to dig out.
If your points are too difficult and complex to explain fully at the very beginning, all is not lost. You can still summarize them at the outset then expand on them later. Your initial summary will have primed readers about what to expect and caught their attention.
If necessary, you can repeat your main points at the end.
2 Use headings to guide readers through your thoughts
One of your key tasks is to make sure your messages are easy to understand. To do this, it is essential to spell out for them what each different section is about. Why should they have to work that out for themselves?
Short, informative headings not only make information more digestible, they also keep readers interested. And it is not just lengthy reports and the like that benefit from headings. Even a single-page document can have several headings.
Headings that pose questions can be very useful. Contrast the bland Current Market Situation with New entrant set to shake up the market?
3 Use everyday words
In the past people in business communicated in a formal style, but nowadays that isn’t always necessary. In fact, formal style can distance people who receive your business emails and memos. Choose the short, everyday words that everyone says: write begin instead of commence, help instead of assist. Here are more everyday words that in most contexts work better than formal ones:
Everyday & friendly
Formal & distancing
|✔ find out
|✔ leave out
If you can’t think of a simpler word, you could consult an online thesaurus. Remember too that some readers may not read English as their first language; everyday words will be easier for them to understand.
4 Avoid unnecessary jargon and specialist terms
Your industry or business probably uses specialist or technical terms. But you must not assume that people outside your professional field understand them. Avoid them in writing for anyone not in your field. Those people will think such terms are ‘jargon’ and like another language that they struggle to translate back into English. Only use technical terms if you are absolutely sure that the audience you are writing for knows them as well as you do.
5 Use we’re not we are, we’ve not we have
In speech, we use shortened forms, like those above (technically known as contractions). It is perfectly acceptable these days to use them in business writing too, as they’re friendlier and more direct (‘they’re’ is a contraction too). Or you can alternate between them and the full form, as these tips do. You should only use the full form throughout your writing if you specifically want to convey an impression of formality.
6 Use active verbs rather than passive ones
We’ve taken the decision to reduce working hours. [active]
The decision has been taken to reduce working hours. [passive]
The first example above is active: an identifiable person (we) has done something and is the grammatical subject of the verb taken.
The second one is passive: the grammatical subject (decision) has not done anything. Instead, something has been done to it.
- Verbs expressed in the passive make your writing sound impersonal when it should be personal.
- They highlight the action rather than the person performing it.
- But very often knowing who is performing the action is a crucial part of the message.
In the first example above, ‘we’ take responsibility for the decision; in the second, ‘we’ are evading it. If you do want to disown responsibility, passive verbs will help. But in business writing, it is generally clearer and friendlier to own actions, not disown them.
Grammar checkers often highlight passive verbs, which can help you to avoid using them unnecessarily.
You can find more information on how to use passive verbs appropriately here.
7 Don’t be a slave to supposed grammar rules
Certain rules have been handed down over the years but have no real basis in fact or in grammar. Obeying them will make your writing stiff and unfriendly.
Among such rules are the so-called split infinitive, the ‘rule’ that you can never end a sentence with a preposition, and the idea that you cannot start a sentence with and or but. Compare these two examples:
The Chairman would like a more detailed explanation of what this investment will be used for.
(preposition at end).
X The Chairman would like a more detailed explanation of for what this investment will be used.
The first is natural English; the second is contorted and unnatural. A grammar checker is likely to flag up the first; you can safely ignore it.
8 Avoid being abstract
Readers find concrete statements more helpful and interesting than abstract or theoretical ones. You should support any general statement with examples, or with facts and figures.
For instance, the statement ‘Competition in our sector has increased significantly’ needs to be amplified, because significantly is vague and abstract. Quantify the increase, or give examples of what competitors are doing.
Overuse of abstract nouns is also a barrier to good business writing, particularly abstract nouns based on verbs: Specific consideration will need to be given to the needs of minority groups should be rewritten as We/they (or whoever the person doing the considering is) will need to consider...
9 Avoid too many fonts
You probably want to emphasize certain pieces of information in your business writing, such as salient facts and figures, key words and ideas. If you have made good use of headings, as suggested at tip #2 above, you will want them to stand out too.
Headings are often in bold (but not entirely in capitals), and you can also use bold for words or phrases you wish to emphasize (but don’t overdo it).
Using too many different fonts in the same document is messy. It is generally a good idea to stick to a single font; if you want to use a second font, use it only for titles and headings.
The key choice in a document is between a font with serifs—the projections finishing off certain letters—and those without, like the typeface used in these tips, known as sans serif typefaces. Serif typefaces are generally used in printed books and articles; sans serif ones are used online.
To see the difference, here is a sentence in a serif face:
The key choice in a document is between a font with serifs—the projections finishing off certain letters—and those without.
(If you compare the letters b, d, h, k, and l in the above with how they appear here, the difference should become very clear).
Serif faces create a more professional, businesslike impression than sans serif ones, and as such are generally appropriate for most kinds of business writing.
10 Check your work with a fine-tooth comb
Spelling and grammar mistakes create a very poor impression of you. To avoid them, read through what you have written very thoroughly, preferably more than once. Printing it out rather than reading it on screen makes mistakes easier to spot.
Some text editing programs have a facility for checking grammar and spelling, and using those can be helpful. However, you need to be aware that spellcheckers have limitations and will not pick up every single mistake. For instance, they might not spot that you have left out a word or words.
If you can, get a partner, colleague, or friend to read over you writing. They may spot things you have missed.
11 Be careful with emails
- In business emails, write only what you would be prepared to say to the recipient face-to-face.
- Read the email out to yourself.
(That will help you get the tone and content right.)
- Never send anything of a potentially offensive, insulting, or intimate nature from a business email address.
(Bear in mind that an email can circulate round the whole cybersphere)
- Be very careful about sending emails regarding your personal affairs from your work email address.
- Companies frequently monitor email
- Edit and check your email, like any other piece of writing.
- If time allows, let it sit for a while before hitting the ‘send’ button.
Read more about writing business emails.
Back to Top writing tips.
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