If you work in business, you might not view professional writing as critical. After all, the real challenges involve profit margins, employee retention and marketing. It's possible that you hire someone to write marketing literature or social media content anyway.
However, effective communication is imperative in business. Without good communication – especially with clients and business partners – you run the risk of initiating a project, developing a new product, or launching a new strategic initiative in a way that leads to dead ends. Customers won't understand your business objectives, and it only takes one poorly written email to create a sense of confusion and frustration.
These tips are intended to make an immediate impact on how you communicate, starting with your next email. They are designed for people who are already overloaded with tasks. If you follow these basic guidelines, you will find that people understand what you mean and what you want to do, and they will even communicate more effectively with you.
1. Learn the basics of good business writing.
There's a serious misconception about good business writing. Using complicated phrasing, relying on proprietary terms, and sounding smart and knowledgeable might seem like good practices, but they just cause confusion. A better approach is to write clearly and succinctly. State what you really mean, and don't worry about sounding ultra-professional.
It's best to avoid complex phrasing and write with an obvious noun-verb construction. Good written communication is often short and to the point. Start by making your sentences shorter, and pick a a strong verb. Be direct. The best business writing flows easily and isn't hard to read or understand.
If you follow this advice and stick to a clear and concise writing style, you might be tempted to only use that writing style in "official" documents like a marketing plan. The truth is that all writing in business these days is official, because it is often easily accessible. On social media, you might think a post or comment is a throwaway that no one will notice. That's the first mistake when it comes to business writing. Everything is accessible.
Another general tip is to stick with a logical flow. You might switch to a clear and concise writing style, and that's great, but if you jump around when you write a document and don't maintain an obvious structure for the entire document, you will still confuse the reader. A good place to start is by making a rough outline. It shouldn't be overly detailed – just jot down the key points so you can stick to a roadmap when you're halfway through your email, article or even social post.
2. Make your emails shine, and don't try to explain everything in one message.
Many of us send dozens of emails a day. In business, it's one of the primary forms of communication. While the general tips above apply to all documents, social media posts and emails, there are a few tips that specifically relate to email. Here's one: Keep your message short and simple. It's amazing how many people will compose a long, complicated email and think that is the best way to communicate – packing in all the details as though they are shipping a box.
It's far better to keep things light – like a one-page letter or less. The reason is that everyone in business is busy and distracted. A well-written email is often one that sticks to the basics, covering just what needs to be covered. Instead of including every possible variable, use email as a way to start the conversation. If needed, you can do a deeper dive by phone or using a chat app like Slack. When someone gets an email from you, it should be easy to read and provide just the right level of detail.
3. Read these amazing books to study up.
For anyone who wants to learn the craft of writing without taking a full course or earning a college degree in the field, there are a few shortcuts you can take. One is to read as much as you can. The more you read, the more you will see how to write. As long as you pay attention to how a story is crafted and why words are arranged as they are to make well-written sentences, you will pick up on the basics of exceptional writing, almost by osmosis.
Three outstanding books in particular will give you an immediate boost. Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is a good place to start. A former proofreader and copy editor, Benjamin Dreyer explains how to write using a lighthearted style.
Another helpful book is Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, written by Mary Norris, a former copy editor at The New Yorker. Once again, the breezy style and funny anecdotes in this book serve as a template for good business writing.
For a true masterwork about how to research and write for business purposes, consider the book Working. Covering the basics of research, interviewing and writing, this outstanding seminal book by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert A. Caro is rich in detail and provides some of the best advice you will read on effective communication.
4. Create a writing sample for a job application.
There may be times when you have to submit a writing sample for a job application. All the tips above still apply, although there are a few things to note. One is that a writing sample should be crafted with more precision, and that means editing and re-editing. The best writing, at least in terms of the more official submissions you might make for a job application or for content marketing purposes, is thoroughly edited. It's a chiseling process where you revise the text over and over again.
For any writing sample, it's also a good idea to think about the structure of the piece and if it communicates enough about the subject matter. This is a fine balance – including enough detail so that it is a complete sample, while not including any extraneous information.
5. Avoid these common business writing mistakes.
In addition to writing in a simple and concise manner, avoiding jargon or complicated terms, and following an obvious structure, you want to avoid the mistake of amateur writing.
One obvious mistake is passive voice. Compared to active voice ("the brown fox jumped over the log"), passive voice uses a complex sentence structure that's hard to read ("the log was jumped over by the brown fox"). This writing mistake is surprisingly common and makes business communication confusing.
For another example, it might seem obvious that you should use perfect grammar in business writing, but too many people write without thinking about the rules. Pay attention to common grammar traps such as mixing up your pronouns (saying "he" and then "they" to refer to the same subject, for example) or using the wrong verb tense ("do" versus "did," for example). If there are a few that routinely trip you up, make a list of them so you can remain mentally aware of them while writing at work.
One last tip has to do with spelling. It's easy to write a quick email and hit Send, but it's wise to always scan through every email and check your spelling. Nothing confuses a reader more than a misspelled word, because it means stopping and figuring out what you meant. As a good rule of thumb, read everything at least once, maybe even twice, before you send it.