If your writing style took shape in school, you may have been led to believe that subtle thoughts require complex sentences, sophisticated vocabulary and dense presentation. Perhaps you learned to write that way — or maybe you didn’t. Either way: Get over it. The rules of academic writing don’t apply to the business world or everyday writing needs.
Real-world writing is more natural, reader-friendly, and easier than academic writing — especially after you learn the essential strategies covered in this article. They will help you write better proposals, blogs, and presentations — and also personal messages to raise money for a cause, ask for a favor, request a refund for a disappointing product, qualify for a loan and just about everything else.
In this article, I’ll share with you the best tips to improve business writing.
What is Business Writing?
Business writing can refer to a wide range of texts, including correspondence, reports, publications, presentations, and more. Though business texts can have many uses, they share certain common principles.
Business writing is typically neutral, particularly when it comes to reports, though public-facing writing may have purposes more in line with marketing such as copywriting.
Depending on the context, business writing may require the active or passive voice, as there will be times when the actor is important (such as when taking responsibility or making a commitment) and times when the actor is not important (such as when discussing general trends and the results of activities):
- Global IT laid new phone lines throughout the neighbourhood, increasing connectivity. (assigning responsibility to a specific company)
- New phone lines were laid throughout the neighbourhood, increasing connectivity for local businesses by 25%. (focusing on the impact rather than the actor)
The perspective used for business writing will also depend on your context and style. Some companies consistently write in the third person, others in the first, and some use a combination depending on the situation.
This also applies to vocabulary and certain flexible areas of grammar and punctuation and is particularly important for specialist terms and abbreviations. House style guides should provide guidance on all of these areas for a particular company, and if such styles are not formally covered it is worth checking particular styles with a ranking member of the company.
This connects to an overriding principle that business writing is, above all, typically collaborative. Unless you are working for yourself, consulting with colleagues is essential for consistency.
Best Tips To Improve Business Writing
1. Writing to be understood
Clarity and simplicity go hand in hand. It means your messages communicate what you intend with no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Your reason for writing, and what you want the reader to do as a result of reading the message, are equally clear. This requires using:
- Words your reader already knows and whose meanings are agreed upon — no forcing readers to look up words; no trying to impress
- Sentences centered on simple, active verbs in the present tense when possible (for example, “Jane wrote the report” rather than “the report has been written by Jane”)
- A sentence structure that leads readers though the message and motivates them to keep going
- Well-organized, logical, on-point, just-enough content without anything unnecessary or distracting
- Clear connections between sentences, paragraphs and ultimately ideas, so your statement is cohesive
- Correct spelling and basic grammar
Writing with the preceding characteristics is transparent — nothing stands in the way of the reader absorbing your information, ideas and requests. Good business writing for most purposes doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s like a good makeup job. People don’t want to hear, “Great cosmetology!” They much prefer, “You look beautiful.” Similarly, you want your audience to admire your thinking, not the way you phrased it.
One result of meeting these criteria is that people can move through your material quickly. This is good! A fast read is your best shot at pulling people into your message and keeping them from straying off because they’re bored. These days we are all so overwhelmed and impatient that we often don’t bother to invest time in deciphering a message’s meaning. We just stop reading.
Creating an easy reading experience is hard on the writer. Just like a simple dress or suit is often more expensive than a fussy one, a message that seems simple is a bigger investment, but in terms of thought. When you write well, you do all the readers’ work for them.
They don’t need to figure out anything because you’ve already done every bit of it. Leave out information or connections and they will leap the gap in any way they choose. So take the trouble to be unambiguous, complete and concise, because that’s how you win what you want.
2. Relying on everyday wording
The short everyday words you use in ordinary speech are your basic stock for business writing. They’re clear, practical, direct and concrete. They’re also powerful enough to express your deepest and widest thoughts. They’re the words that reach people emotionally, too, because they stand for the most basic and tangible things people care about and need to communicate about. “Home” is a whole different story than “residence”; “quit” carries a lot more overtones than “resign.” Does “dumped” carry more feeling than “rejected”?
Make a list of basic one- and two-syllable words and almost certainly, they come from the oldest part of the English language, Anglo-Saxon. Most words with three or more syllables were grafted onto this basic stock by historical invaders: the French-speaking Normans and the Latin-speaking Romans for the most part, both of whom aspired to higher levels of cultural refinement than the Britons.
If you were raised in an English-speaking home, you learned Anglo-Saxon words during earliest childhood and acquired the ones with “foreign” influences later in your education. Scan these previous two paragraphs and you know immediately which words came from which culture set.
For many reasons, then, readers are programmed to respond best to simple, short, low-profile English words. They trigger feelings of trust (an Anglo-Saxon word) and credibility (from the French). Obviously, I don’t choose to write entirely with one-syllable words.
Variety is the key — just as with sentences. English’s history gives you a remarkable array of words when you want to be precise or produce certain feelings. Even in business English, a sprinkling of longer words contributes to a good pace and can make what you say more specific and interesting. But don’t forget your basic word stock.
If you’re writing to a non-native English-speaking audience, you have even more reason to write with one- and two-syllable words. People master the same basic words first when learning a new language, no matter what their original tongue, so all new English-speakers understand them.
You know this if you’ve ever had a conversation in with someone whose native language is not English, in a language foreign to both of you. For example, if you converse with a Russian speaker who studied two years of French like you did, you can communicate quite well with each other.
In many workplaces today, you need to communicate with culturally diverse audiences all the time as well as with people with different educational levels. Make simple, straightforward language the general rule.
This principle holds for long documents like reports and proposals as much as for emails. They should never read pretentiously no matter how big a job you’re pitching and no matter how impressive the company. And short word guidelines are also important for online writing such as for websites and blogs.
When we read onscreen, we have even less patience with multi-syllable, sophisticated words. Reading (and writing) on smartphones and other small devices usually makes short words the only practical choice.
3. Choosing reader-friendly words
Using short, easy words may seem like common sense, so why do you see so much business messaging with all those long, highly educated words in dense sentences? I have no idea. If everyone wrote the way we all prefer to read, I’m sure we’d have a more collegial, efficient and productive world.
Consciously develop your awareness of short-word options. Clearer writing gives you better results.
I don’t mean that the longer words are bad — in fact, they can often be the better choice. But generally, be sure you have a reason for going long.
Make up your own list of words to simplify by observing your writing. Identify the three or more syllable words you use often, think about shorter alternatives and write them down as in the preceding list. An online thesaurus can help. Once you are conscious of your options, you will make better choices in all your writing.
4. Focusing on the real and concrete
Concrete nouns are words that denote something tangible: a person or any number of actual things, such as dog, nose, dirt, doctor, house, boat, balloon, computer, egg, tree, chair and so on. They are objects that exist in real space. You can experience them with your senses — touch, see, hear, smell or taste them.
Abstract nouns typically represent ideas and concepts. They may denote a situation, condition, quality or experience, such as catastrophe, freedom, efficiency, happiness, knowledge, mystery, fairness, observation, sadness, analysis, research, love, democracy and countless more.
When you use concrete nouns in your writing, readers bring their sensory associations to your words, and this lends reality to your thoughts. Moreover, you can expect most people to take the same meaning from them. This isn’t true of abstract words. Two people are unlikely to argue about what a flag is, but they may well disagree on what exactly “democracy” or “happiness” means.
When you build your writing on a lot of abstract nouns, you are generalizing. Even when you’re writing an opinion or philosophical piece, too much abstraction doesn’t fire the imagination. A lot of business writing strikes readers as dull and uninspiring for this reason.
Suppose at a pivotal point of World War II Winston Churchill had written in the manner of many modern business executives:
We’re operationalizing this initiative to proceed as effectively, efficiently and proactively as possible in alignment with our responsibilities to existing population centers and our intention to develop a transformative future for mankind. We’ll employ cost-effective, cutting-edge technologies and exercise the highest level of commitment, whatever the obstacles that materialize in various geographic situations.
Instead he wrote and said:
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Which statement engages the senses and therefore the heart, even three-quarters of a century after this particular cause was won? Which carries more conviction? Granted, Churchill was writing a speech, but the statement also works amazingly when read.
While you probably won’t be called on to rouse your countrymen as Churchill was, writing in a concrete way pays off for you, too. It brings your writing alive. Aim to get down to earth in what you say and how you say it.
5. Finding action verbs
Good strong verbs invigorate. Passive verbs, which involve a form of the verb “to be,” deaden language and thinking, too. Consider some dull sentences and their better alternatives:
- The whole company was alarmed by the stock market loss.
- The stock market loss alarmed the whole company.
- A decision to extend working hours was reached by the talent management office.
- The talent management office decided to extend working hours.
The first sentence in each set represents what grammarians call the passive voice: a form of the verb “to be” followed by a word ending in “-ed.” Other constructions also use non-active verbs that tell you to take a second look. One clue: sentences that rely on the phrases “there is” and “there are,” which often bury meaning. Compare the following pairs:
- There is a company rule to consider in deciding which route to follow.
- A company rule tells us which route to follow.
- There are guidelines you should use if you want to improve your writing.
- Follow the guidelines to improve your writing.
For most dull inactive verbs, the solution is the same: Find the action. Be clear about who did what and then rework the sentence to say that.
You may need to go beyond changing the verb and rethink the entire sentence so it’s simple, clear and direct. In the process, take responsibility. Passive sentences often evade it. A classic example:
Mistakes were made, people were hurt and opportunities were lost.
Who made the mistakes, hurt the people and lost the opportunities? The writer? An unidentified CEO? Mystery government officials? This kind of structure is sometimes called “the divine passive”: Some unknown or unnamable force made it happen.
To help you remember why you generally need to avoid the passive, here’s my favorite mistake. I asked a group of people to write about their personal writing problems and how they planned to work on them. One person contributed:
Many passive verbs are used by me.
Remember Take the time to identify the passive verbs and indirect constructions in all your writing. Doing so doesn’t mean that you must always eliminate them. You may want to use the passive because no clearly definable active subject exists — or it doesn’t matter:
The award was created to recognize outstanding sales achievement.
Or you may have a surprise to disclose that leads you to use the passive for emphasis:
This year’s award was earned by the newest member of the department: Joe Mann.
Using the passive unconsciously often undermines your writing success. Substitute active verbs. They can be short and simple, such as drive, end, gain, fail, win, probe, treat, taint, speed. Or they can be longer words that offer more precise meaning, such as underline, trigger, suspend, pioneer, model, fracture, crystallize, compress, accelerate. Both word groups suggest action and movement, adding zing and urgency to your messages.
6. Crafting comparisons to help readers
Comparisons help your readers understand your message on deeper levels. You can use similes and metaphors, which are both analogies, to make abstract ideas more tangible and generally promote comprehension. These devices don’t need to be elaborate, long or pretentiously literary. Here are some simple comparisons:
- Poets use metaphors like painters use brushes — to paint pictures that help people see under the surface.
- Winning this award is my Oscar.
- Life: a box of chocolates.
- The average human hair is 90,000 nanometers wide, compared to the width of the new polymer strand — 10 nanometers.
- From 15,000 feet up, the world looks like a colorful quilt of peace and harmony.
Take a few minutes and assemble a short list of things, activities or experiences on the left-hand side of a page of blank paper or screen. For example, you can list your new project, writing your résumé, making your boss happy, the new product you’re selling, playing a computer game and so on.
Think about what that item is like — how you can describe it visually or through the other senses. Think about how it makes you feel. Brainstorm about other things that have similar characteristics. Try to avoid clichés and come up with something you find interesting.
Write your idea for each item on your list on the right side of the paper. Come up with an idea for every item just to give yourself the practice, without worrying whether some of your comparisons are less than brilliant. Use your new skill when you’re writing an important document, trying to explain something difficult or making your best persuasive argument.
For example, you might brainstorm for a comparison by “finishing” statements, such as:
Winning this contract is as good as …
This new service will change your thinking about life insurance just like X changed Y.
Saving a few dollars by investing in Solution A instead of Solution B is like …
7. Achieving a conversational tone
Business writers often advise adopting a “conversational” tone, but what does that actually mean?
The business correspondence written in the nineteenth century, and even most of the twentieth, seems slow, formal, and ponderous when read today. Communication needs to move as quickly as our lives, and we want it to feel natural.
There is, however, something of an illusion when it comes to conversational tone. It’s not true that you write the way you talk, and you shouldn’t. But you can echo natural speech in various ways to more effectively engage your audience.
Because chat messages are spontaneous, they can be read as conversational. But for the same reason, chat doesn’t work well for more “serious” matters that demand thoughtful exchange or detail — even informal networks find email better in such cases.
The most effective online copy utilizes the conversational illusion to the fullest extent possible. Pay attention to the jazzy, spontaneous-style copy on websites you love. The words may read like they sprang ready-made out of some genie’s lamp, but more than likely they were produced by a team of copywriters agonizing over every word for weeks or months or years.
It takes time and effort to write spontaneous-reading copy. Bloggers, for example, are good at writing conversationally because they consciously practice this skill.
Similarly, do you imagine that comedians — or rap artists — perform with total spontaneity? Not so much. At the least, they draw on a repertoire of ideas developed over time and may carefully practice an off-the-cuff tone.
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld shared in a video interview that one signature joke he uses in standup gigs took him three years to perfect. Preparation is critical for non-funny events as well — politicians and CEOs (or their support people) systematically anticipate all possible questions and practice answering them in advance.
8. Choosing a typeface
Type has numerous graphic aspects and effects. Following are some of the most significant, as well as easiest to adjust.
For printed text, serif fonts — fonts with feet or squiggles at the end of each letter are more reader-friendly because they make every letter distinct and unambiguous.
They also guide the eye smoothly from letter to letter, word to word. However, sans-serif fonts (ones without the little feet) are often favored by art directors for marketing and online material and publications directed to young audiences, because they look more modern and classy.
But some sans serifs leave room for confusion — for example, it can be hard to distinguish between a small “l” and the number “l.” The sans-serif font Verdana was specifically designed to be readable on small screens at low resolution and is often used for digital media.
Choose your font according to your purpose. For long print documents, serif remains the better choice for the same reason that books still use it — ease of reading.
But you can to some extent mix your faces. Using sans-serif headlines and subheads can make a welcome contrast. (For example, Times New Roman and Helvetica work nicely together.) But generally, resist the temptation to combine more than two different typefaces.
The best point size for text depends on the result you’re trying to achieve. Generally, somewhere between 10 and 12 points works best in print, but you need to adjust according to your audience and the experience you want to create. Small type may look great, but if you want readers 55 and older to read your annual report, 8-point type will kill you.
Online text suggests a similar 10- to 12-point range for body copy, but calculating the actual onscreen experience for a wide range of monitors and devices is complicated. Online text often looks different on different platforms. Err on the side of a generous point size.
Margins and columns
For both online and print media, avoid making columns of type so wide that the eye becomes discouraged in reading across. If breaking the copy into two columns isn’t suitable, consider widening one or both margins. Also, avoid columns that are only three or four words wide, because they’re hard to read and annoying visually.
Think carefully before you fool with justifying text. Justified type has a straight edge vertically. This paragraph is justified on the left, which is almost always your best choice for body copy. When text is left uneven on the right, this is called “rag right” in printer parlance.
9. Keeping colors simple
Using color to accent a print document makes for happier eyes, but stay simple. One color, in addition to black used for the text, is probably plenty. Typically, it’s best used in a consistent way for headlines and subheads. Full color is best applied to photographs and other graphics rather than to making rainbow copy.
Warning Even online, where you face no limit on using as many colors as you like, seeing a lot of different colors strikes people as messy and amateur these days. Designers prefer simple, clean palettes that combine a few colors at most. So should you.
And avoid placing any type against a color background that makes it hard to read. This means that backgrounds should be no more than a light tint. Dropped or reversed-out type — for instance, white type on a black or dark background — can look terrific, but only in small doses, such as a caption or short sidebar. A whole page of reversed-out type, whether in print or onscreen, makes a daunting read.
If you’re working on a major document or website with a graphic designer, never allow graphic impact to trump readability and editorial clarity. To most designers, words are just part of a visual pattern. If a designer tells you the document has too many words, listen; it’s probably true and you do want the piece to look good. But “just say no” if playing second fiddle to the visual undermines your message. Graphics should strengthen, not weaken, its impact and absorbability.
Business writing is typically formal, like academic writing. Likewise, technical terms are expected in business writing, when you know your intended audience will understand such words.
Otherwise, the best practice for business writing is to keep things as direct and simple as possible, for maximum clarity and accuracy. Mistakes in business communications can be very costly, so it is especially important to focus on accuracy here.