People write at work all the time. Emails, proposals, memos, presentations. The workplaces constant flow of information exchange is driven more than ever before by the written word.
Yet writing for business is a very specialised skill that we are not often formally taught.
If you are going to help somebody improve their written communication at work, here are some tips taken from the Harvard Business School’s Guide To Better Business Writing.
Think Before Writing
Before anybody puts pen to paper or hands to keyboard, they must consider what you want to say. We have all been told to “take 10 minutes” when about to craft an emotionally charged communication at work. But the same level of thought should go into all communication.
Most people actually think as they are writing which makes their writing less structured and decisive.
People should ask themselves: What should my audience know or think after reading this email, proposal, or report? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, then a step back to collect thoughts is definitely required.
Business people are normally time-poor and are reading things surrounded by lots of other pressures and demands. It’s so important in business writing to make a point as clearly and directly as possible.
Many people find that the writing style and structure they developed in school does not work as well in the business world.
By succinctly presenting a main idea first, you save your reader time and sharpen your argument before diving into the bulk of writing, such as additional detail to a commercial proposal. When writing longer memos and proposals, the key issue, proposal or solution should be stated in no more than 150 words at the top of the first page. This kind of summarising up-front helps a time-pressured colleague or client digest what you are saying quickly and clearly.
Cut The Fat
People should be always be encouraged to read any business communication back after they have written it, thinking particularly about unnecessary words or sentences. When most people read their work back they are looking for errors, but verbosity should be uppermost in peoples minds.
The minute readers feel that a piece of writing is overly verbose they start tuning out. Focus specifically on shortening prepositions (point of view becomes viewpoint); replacing –ion words with action verbs (provided protection to becomes protected); and swapping is, are, was and were with stronger verbs (indicates rather than is indicative of).
Business writing is full of industry-specific buzzwords and acronyms. And while these terms are sometimes unavoidable and can occasionally be helpful as shorthand, they often indicate lazy or cluttered thinking. Throw in too many, and a reader will assume the writer is on autopilot — or worse, does not understand what they are saying.
In the workplace people should be encouraged to create a buzzword blacklist – a list of words they always look to avoid in business writing.
Use of grandiose language should also be discouraged. Writers often mistakenly believe using a big word when a simple one will do is a sign of intelligence, but research has shown that most readers find over the top language patronising.
Practice Every Day
Writing is a skill and skills improve with practice.
Somebody that is looking to improve their business writing should be encouraged to read well-written material every day, and be attentive to word choice, sentence structure, and flow. The Wall St Journal for Financial Times is a great place to start, while Fowler’s Modern English Usage is a great reference point for correct phraseology.
It’s also vitally important that somebody looking to improve their business writing builds time into their schedule, for example when considering a deadline for returning a proposal to a client, to proof-read their work.
Principles to Remember
Here are some of the key points to remember when mentoring somebody on their business writing:
Plan out what to say to make writing more direct and effective.
Use words sparingly and keep sentences short and to the point.
Avoid jargon and “fancy” words. Strive for clarity.
Allow the person to believe they “can’t write”. Anyone can become a better writer with practice.
Believe that a first draft is perfect, or even passable. Every document can be improved.
Bury the most important points. Present the main point of the email, document, proposal as soon as possible.