Writing for Business

by Steve Roche

Readability and style

Most people are better at communicating face to face than in other ways. Many people become less articulate when they have to put something in writing. They find themselves in a muddle of business-speak, writing something over-formal and over-long and, worse still, forgetting what their objectives were in the first place.

Writing is one of the three things which many people assume they can do well, despite copious evidence to the contrary (the others being driving a car and making love).

Anon

Writing is different from the way we talk. If you look at a transcript of people talking, it is full of pauses, noises, interruptions and sentence fragments. It would be a mistake to write in that way.

But it is also a mistake to assume that writing must be radically different from speech. One cause of poor writing is the use of prefabricated English. Old-fashioned business letters had standard ways of starting and ending:

  • ‘We are in receipt of your esteemed communication of the 15th...’
  • ‘Enclosed herewith for your perusal is...’
  • ‘Assuring you of our best attention at all times...’

All the writer had to do was to assemble the appropriate parts – without giving a moment’s thought to the reader.

Modern equivalents include...

  • ‘with reference to... / in regard to...’
  • ‘has been due to the fact that...’
  • ‘it should be noted that...’.

You won’t have to look too far in business writing to spot these ready-made phrases that do the thinking for the writer – ready-made phrases that even save the writer having to think about what they really mean.

Such phrases prevent real thought, so avoid them and write what you really mean in a non-formulaic way.

Meaning

Much of the time what we write is in ‘final draft’ stage – we write it and that’s it. But before making sense to others we must make meaning plain to ourselves.

Most of us can only write reasonably well when we know what we want to say, when have worked over our thoughts first. No wonder that, when forced by time limitations, we look for convenient short cuts.

Not only do words on the page carry the whole burden of meaning, they also have lasting value – they can be re-read, while spoken words are gone.

The following was written about politicians but is true of all of us:

A scrupulous writer in every sentence that he writes will ask himself... ‘What am I trying to say? What words will express it?...’ And he probably asks himself... ‘Could I put it more shortly?’ But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing open your mind and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you to a certain extent. At need they will perform the important service of partly concealing your meaning even from yourself.

George Orwell

It is all too easy to write sentences that are ambiguous. Think how often forms are filled in incorrectly because even the simplest of questions can be misinterpreted.

Next of kin: Husband

Relationship: Not very good!

When you are asking for feedback, check that your sample reader has fully understood what you are trying to convey. Read over your writing once for grammar, spelling errors and the like, and then read it again purely for meaning. Would a different, slightly more specific word at a key point make the meaning clearer? Would an adjective help to clarify your intention? In normal speech we use a very limited vocabulary, but we tend to get instant feedback, verbal and visual, if our meaning is obscure. In writing, it’s possible and often helpful to use a much wider vocabulary, while still avoiding pompous expressions.

Reviewing your work

If you want to make your writing work for you, some sort of review process is always required, even for a short email.

Put yourself in the position of the reader to see what it’s like to have to read your material. Useful questions to ask when reviewing a piece of writing include:

  • What is assumed by the writer and the writing?
  • How will it make the reader feel?
  • Who will the reader think is talking to them?
  • What is the tone of the writing – friendly, arrogant or challenging?

When reviewing claims, statements, discussion or arguments, the following types of questions help to retrieve what’s missing, and to challenge unjustified generalisations or distorted meanings.

For example

  • ‘There is overwhelming support for this proposal.’

From whom, specifically?

  • ‘These procedures have never been successful.’

Never? Never, ever?

  • ‘People are leaving because they are unhappy with the current situation.’

Which people? How do we know they are unhappy? How exactly does their unhappiness relate to their leaving? How do we know that?

If you are part of a writing project or a team, develop a set of test conditions to ensure quality.

For example

The writing should:

  • Get attention and engage curiosity,
  • Make it easy to find what is needed,
  • Relate to the user as they are right now,
  • Coach the user to get to the real issue.

The writing should be:

  • Technically correct,
  • Suitable for repeat reading,
  • Practical and quick to use.

The writing should have:

  • Interactive aspects,
  • Conversational style,
  • Exercises worth repeating.

Develop your skills by getting involved in reviews of other people’s work.

Writing tools

Use the tools in your word processing software:

  • Spell checker – picks up misspellings and repeated words. Customise it to add words you use frequently.
  • Grammar checker – picks up misuse of capitals, punctuation, agreement of subjects and verbs, sentence fragments, compound words and passive language.
  • Word count – gives the total number of words in your document – useful to give an estimate of size; essential if you are writing to a predefined length.
  • Thesaurus – suggests alternatives for repeated or overused words.
  • AutoCorrect – can be customised to correct common errors automatically as you type.

Grammar

Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style.

Jonathan Swift

Everyday language and a comfortable, conversational style make for easy reading.

Avoid old-fashioned grammar and an artificially formal prose style. Rather than...

‘It is desirable that personnel should be kept informed of their progress against relevant objectives’,

...just say:

‘Tell people how they are getting on’.

Avoid over-use of exclamation marks. Don’t use them at the end of every sentence! It becomes extremely irritating for the reader! They feel they are being harangued!!! Multiple exclamation marks should be avoided at all costs!!!!

Readability

On average, short sentences are better than long ones. They are easier to read. The popular press knows this. Sentences in tabloids are always short. But they can be monotonous. They seem jerky.

To gauge the readability of your prose, look at:

  • the average length of your sentences and
  • the number of words of three syllables or more.

Consistently using long sentences and long words means a high ‘fog factor’ (in other words, you are not easy to read).

A quick fog factor check: count the number of words with at least three syllables and divide that number by the number of sentences. If the result is much over four, replace long words with short ones and insert some full stops.

  • Remember that bright people can understand simple language.
  • Avoid long paragraphs. A single sentence can carry great impact.
  • Create sets of bullet points rather than producing continuous prose.

Thought for the day: How ‘less is more’

Pythagoras’ Theorem 24 words
The Lord’s Prayer 66 words
Archimedes’ Principle 67 words
The Ten Commandments 179 words
The Gettysburg Address 286 words
US Declaration of Independence 1,300 words
US Government Regulations on Sale of Cabbage 26,911 words

Style

Avoid being:

  • Biased – your view may not be appropriate. Try ‘here’s an excellent idea...’, or ‘here’s an approach to consider...’
  • Politically incorrect – ‘chair’ for ‘chairman’ has become the norm. Sometimes it may get silly, but it matters. Why upset people for whom it is more important than it is for you?
  • Hard to read – with too few headings and space, it looks like it will be hard to read.
  • Annoying – some kinds of errors cause particular irritation. The current proliferation of wrongly used apostrophes annoys many people.

See this collection of Things to avoid and things to do.