Excellent advice abounds for how to be a better writer in specific fields: public relations/marketing, law, medicine, technology, etc. Despite the nuances specific to those disciplines, certain rules for good business writing apply across the board. Our tips aren’t all-inclusive, but if you follow these guidelines, you’ll improve your business writing exponentially.
We discuss the first six tips, relating to content, today and in Part 2 next week. The third week in Part 3 we'll talk about how to fine-tune what you’ve written.
1. Know the purpose of the piece and make it clear up front.
To write clearly, you have to have a clear idea of what you want to say. For some, that means using an outline. For others, idea mapping works better. Whatever your approach, the goal is to figure out what you want to say, whom you’re saying it to and why you’re saying it. Those answers will inform how you say it.
Once you know what you want to say, let the reader know that right away — in the first couple of sentences or paragraphs, depending on the length of the document. You do your readers a disservice if you save the point you want to make for the conclusion, especially if they find after wading through the document that your purpose doesn’t pertain to them.
2. Write in plain English
The primary goal of writing is to communicate in a way your audience will understand. That means the guidelines might vary widely depending on whether you’re writing to a lay audience, a group of industry professionals, or specialists in a technical field. For example, legal jargon in a client alert might alienate your audience, while legal jargon in a continuing legal education chapter might resonate. We’ll talk more about jargon in a future post.
Redundancy is also common in legal language, despite efforts in some quarters to eliminate it. For mixed audiences, generally try to avoid jargon and redundancy.
In all kinds of writing, avoid using clichés (tired or unoriginal expressions) and words or phrases that require a dictionary to understand them.
3. Use active voice
In active voice, the subject is the doer rather than the receiver of the action. It makes for writing that is stronger, clearer and more concise. Consider this example:
It has recently been estimated by the CDC that the number of Ebola cases in Liberia will reach 550,000 within the next month.
Changing the passive voice to active makes the sentence much more concise and readable:
The CDC estimated that the number of Ebola cases in Liberia will reach 550,000 within the next month.
Passive voice sometimes works, but active voice is usually the better choice.
Let us know in the comments below any other strategies you’ve used to improve your business writing, and be sure to check back in the next two weeks for our remaining tips.