Business Writing Basics
In a 2004 article by Sam Dillon called What corporate America can’t build: A sentence he says businesses annually spend 3.1 billion on remedial writing for employees, 2.9 billion of it on new hires freshly graduated from universities.
Ouch. And that’s thirteen years ago.
Why grammar counts at work (Forbes)
This embarrasses you and I (Wall Street Journal)
Writing is a reflection of the way you think. If your writing is muddled and hard to follow, or if it sounds like you never matured past middle school thinking, it’s going to clip your wings professionally.
Kyle Wiens wrote an HBR article in 2012 titled I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. When you are hired by an organization you become a reflection of that organization. If you reflect them poorly…inarticulately…people judge the whole company by your lack of skill and you become a liability rather than an asset.
Most people who make it to college have the ability to be coherent. But the biggest mistake young people make is sacrificing quality for speed. They rush through writing assignments, either because they don’t enjoy them or they run themselves out of time until the eleventh hour, and don’t proofread.
Students struggle for words (Wall Street Journal)
Business schools take aim at bad writing ( NBC News_Careers)
Writing is a skill that needs time to settle. You need to do a lot of it, you need to give yourself time for several drafts, and you need to do some quality reading so that you develop an ear for what mature writing sounds like.
You should also invest in a good personal reference library on writing. (See Writing Inspiration.)
Invest time in the writing areas in which you struggle. Few things have a better pay-off.
Clear, Concise & Correct
I have three simple commandments for business writing:
- Be clear
- Be concise
- Be correct
If you can get these things right, you’ll be a more effective writer.
Clarity is king in business writing.
Time is money. Clarity saves time which saves money. Our greatest daily challenge, in most work places, is clear communication. This is true even if we speak the same language.
There are several reasons messages get mixed. Noise. Distractions. The main one is our own schema. We all have a set of filters through which we interpret incoming messages. Based on outside factors like our backgrounds and personalities, we attach new messages to old feelings and stuff them into folders in our brains based on where we think they belong. Frankly…most of us don’t have a perfect batting average on these filings.
Communication is the transfer of meaning…not words, data, or information.
Here are a few fun examples of mixed messages:
On a sign seen in a farmer’s field: “You can cross the field for free, but the bull charges.”
On a sign seen in a laundromat: “Automatic washing machines: Please remove all your clothes when the light goes out.”
On a repair shop door: “We can repair anything. (Please knock hard. The bell doesn’t work.)”
Clarity is not always easy, but it matters a great deal. That’s why it should always be the number one goal in business writing. You want the message you’re sending to be the same one received by others.
There is a scene in the first 10 minutes of the movie A River Runs Through It where Norman Maclean’s father teaches him to write concisely. Reverend Maclean has young Norman make his paper “half as long” twice because “being a Scot, he believed the art of writing lay in thrift.”
Reverend Maclean would have liked William B. Strunk, who famously wrote: “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise.”
Conciseness aids clarity.
Make every word count. Don’t restate things. Use Plain English that all readers will understand.
By “correct” here I mean grammatically and informationally.
If you struggle with grammar, invest in a good grammar guide, then take one rule per day or week and conquer it.
I highly recommend Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves for help with punctuation. It’s a delightful read – a NYTimes bestselling book.
You are judged by your words.
Don’t let them stall your career because of your own stubborn refusal to learn the basic rules.
It’s virtually impossible these days, in a world of constant messaging, not to have a few mistakes creep in. But you want to minimize them.
If you are sending something widespread or to an important audience with dates, statistics, etc. consider having another set of eyes proof it. After a while it can be hard to edit your own work. Sometimes I edit backwards, especially if I have long number sets.
This writing strategy comes from Shwom and Snyder’s Business Communication: Polishing your Professional Presence textbook. A similar 3-step writing strategy is common in all business communication textbooks: pre-writing, writing, and post-writing.
This is the pre-writing phase where you should consider your audience and your purpose. Who is my audience? What is my purpose? Let these questions guide you in gathering needed information prior to starting the draft of your message, and it will help your message be more targeted and efficient.
This is the “just do it” phase. Get your message down on paper (or screen). Again, if you’ve asked good questions in the analyze phase, you’ll save time here and be more efficient. This is not your final step! In fact, only half your work is done at this stage.
Editing is a critical 3rd step – a must to ensure your messages are as clear, strong, and effective as possible. Fifty percent of your effort should occur in the final evaluation phase. Too many times in our busy workplace lives, we fire off after composing a message only to regret it later because we skipped this 3rd step, the most important part of the process.
Evaluate your message 3X before you hit send:
- 1X for mechanics (grammar and punctuation)
- 1X for clarity (conciseness and construction)
- 1X for accuracy (double-check those dates, stats, resources, name spellings, etc.) and appropriateness of tone…correctness in all its forms
Seek to give every business document, whether a simple email or a long written report, high skim value.
The average office worker receives thousands of messages a day. If you want your messages to be read and acted upon, you need to make them easy for your reader to digest.
Things like short sentences, short paragraphs, bold headers, italicized titles, numbered or bulleted lists, step-by-step instructions, and tables, charts, graphs, or photos to illustrate your points help give a document high skim value.
In academia, you were taught to double-space your lines and indent new paragraphs. For business, you should single-space your lines (or I use a multiple 1.15 setting) and skip a line between paragraphs rather than indenting them in business documents.
Other good formatting tips for business documents:
Use a professional font in the appropriate size. Each font style conveys a tone. Some are playful, some serious, some feel old-fashioned, others modern, one type is more fitting for a concert poster, another for a professional resume.
Fonts are serif (they have wings) or sans serif (they don’t have wings). Times New Roman is a classic serif font. Books used to always be printed in serif fonts because they were judged to be easier on readers’ eyes. Arial, Tahoma, and Century Gothic are all sans serif fonts. San serif fonts, once reserved primarily for bold headings, have gained in popularity since the introduction of the Internet.
Use default margins unless adjusting slightly keeps your document on a single page. I confess this is a personal pet peeve. Your Word or Page software comes with default margin settings. But you are allowed to change these if slight changes allow you to get your document on one page instead of two.
Countless times in the workplace, we create a document and only a sentence or two ends up on the final page. If reducing the font size by .5, or the line spacing by a hair, or the bottom or top or side margins would allow you to get it on fewer pages, especially the coveted one page, why not make those adjustments? It’s less to print and you eliminate the chance of that second page getting lost.
And here’s another pet peeve while I’m on it – don’t leave a hanging white page at the end of your document. If you do reduce your content to a single page, but leave a blank page hanging on unnecessarily at the end of your document, when the person you send it to prints it, it sends that second blank page through the printer. That’s annoying if you’re a teacher, like me, and several people do this on each assignment.
Don’t leave headers by themselves at the bottom of the page. Put your headers over the content they introduce. Bump them to the next page. Failing to do this makes it look like you didn’t proofread your document, which may be interpreted as lazy, which reduces your credibility as a professional.
Be consistent in formatting choices. If you bold a header, bold them all. If you italicize a title, italicize all titles. If you indent one bulleted list, indent them all the same. Inconsistencies of style and formatting, again, make you look lazy and less credible.