Tips for writing in the business world

Writing in the business world can be difficult. We have to write Web pages, proposals, emails, policies and procedures and, perhaps, adverts. It can be hard to get going, and create something that’s clear and to the point. Here are some tips to help you get over these difficulties.

It’s not your fault

Let’s start by saying it’s not your fault if you find business writing difficult, because most of us are not taught how to do it at school. At school, we learn how to write stories and how to argue a case. That usually involves building to a big conclusion at the end.

In business, mostly we have to write to:

  • persuade
  • instruct, or
  • inform.

Those are different forms of writing.

Tip 1. Getting started

The trick is to organise your thoughts and think before you write. Ask yourself what do you want to achieve? What do you want your audience to do after they’ve read what you have written?

It’s best to focus on the reader, and ask yourself: what do they want? If you can work out what’s relevant to them, you can save yourself time writing content that’s not needed.

Write an outline of the main topics you’re going to be writing about. This will give you an idea of how long your document is likely to be and how much detail you’ll need to go into.

There are some things you can leave until later. For example, the images and visuals. In addition, it’s often a good idea to leave writing the title for your document until the end.

Tip 2. Structuring your content

Flicker image by EvelynGiggles

Flicker image by EvelynGiggles

If you are writing to inform or instruct, it’s best to write your content in chunks, or what we call topics.

These are a bit like shoe boxes. They keep everything tidy and organised.

Shoe boxes often have labels on them. By looking at the label, we know what will get when we look inside the box. Topics also have labels, called headings, preceding them that do the same thing. Your reader can scan the headings to pick out the topics that are relevant to them.

You don’t cram two pairs of shoes into a single shoe box, and you shouldn’t cram two different pieces of information into a single topic. Stick to one subject in every topic, and then everything’s relevant to the label you’ve used.

Tip 3. Organising your content

One way to organise your content is to write the topic headings down on post-it notes and stick these onto a table or wall. You can then rearrange them until you get the order right.

In the same way you might put your most used shoes to the front of your cupboard, you should put the most important topics at the start of the document.

You get a pyramid-like structure with the summary at the beginning. Below that comes more detailed information, if the reader wants to know about it. To start creating that skeleton structure before we start writing, we can use Kipling’s “six friends”: why, what where, when, how and who. There’s a good chance some or all of these will be headings for topics in your document.

In fact, we can often predict most of the headings and topics that are needed for a proposal, a policy, a field report and so on.

Tip 4. Writing clearly

Topics that only talk about one thing, and the headings give us a head start on being clear.

avoid abstract nouns

Ask yourself, can I put this thing I’m describing in a wheelbarrow? Can you make it concrete, so there is little or no ambiguity over what you are talking about?

So what?

Have you addressed the “So what?” question that might be in the reader’s mind? You might have informed them about something, and they might thinking “so what, why does this matter to me?”. You can follow up with a sentence that begins “this means” to explain why this is important information.

avoid passive zombies

According to Professor Rebecca Johnson, if you can add the phrase “by zombies” after the verb, your sentence has the passive voice. For example, “You will be met at the airport” is a sentence with the passive voice. It’s possible to say, “You will be met at the airport by zombies.” Use the active voice instead, as it will be clearer who is doing what. For example, “Posh Cabs will meet you at the airport.”; that’s much safer!

Be careful with jargon and abbreviations. Does everyone know what you mean, or only your BFF?

Use short sentences

It’s a good idea to keep to no more than 20-25 words in a sentence.

Think Cluedo

In the board game Cluedo, we know who was the murderer, the weapon, the location, and who was the victim. When you’re writing, think about whether it’s clear who is doing what to whom. If you’re talking about “it”, make sure the reader understands what “it” represents.

Be consistent

Be consistent in the terminology you use, and the way you structure and organise the content. Readers build and use patterns in their minds to help them understand.

Tip 5. Revising and checking

Nearly every writer makes mistakes, so check it before you hit the send or publish button. Ideally, get someone else to read it. They are more likely to spot the missing words.

Print it out. For some reason, it’s easier to spot mistakes on a paper copy than on the screen. Alternatively, read it backwards. That’s a great way to spot duplicate words.

Summary

  • Think user
  • Think about what you want to achieve
  • Break your document into discrete chunks and arrange them in a pyramid
  • Start with the headings and get the answers to Kipling’s questions
  • Can you put it in a wheelbarrow?
  • Do you have passive zombies?
  • Think Cluedo when writing sentences

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