You probably can’t go a day, or even an hour, without writing a letter, email, business plan, proposal, report, memo, social media post or instant message in the name of doing your job.
With the written (or typed) word so prevalent in today’s business world, communication skills, specifically better business writing skills, are absolutely crucial to any professional, in any role, in any industry.
Like any skill, some people are natural writers while others must work a bit harder to put the right words in the right place. Regardless, it’s easy to consider good business writing a secondary skill when:
- There are too many rules. It’s true. The English language is full of double standards, exceptions to the rule and strange nuances.
- My other skills make up for what I lack. Maybe that’s true. Stellar sales, interpersonal or technical skills might have already helped you succeed.
- I don’t have time to self-edit. You’re busy. You need to get the email sent, not ensure you win an award for your turn of phrase.
- No one notices the quality of my writing. You’re not the only busy person. Who cares if you throw in a few extra commas?
The business case for better business writing
‘The core of writing, regardless of medium, remains the same: the ability to communicate an idea, with force and clarity and with a voice that over time people recognise as yours,’ says Shay David of Kaltura.
Forget the excuses. Today, written communication might be your only opportunity to make an impression, convey an idea or persuade another person. Without better business writing skills, you might:
- Not get promoted or even hired
- Have trouble working effectively with people
- Be perceived differently than you want to be
In fact, a study of 100 LinkedIn professionals over ten years found that professionals who made 45 percent more grammatical errors received only one to four promotions. Meanwhile, those who made fewer grammatical errors received six to nine promotions.
Kyle Wiens, in his article for HBR ‘I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why,’ writes that ‘Good grammar is credibility.’ As a professional, you know credibility is important to you and to a company. So, how do you begin to both develop and deploy better business writing skills?
1. Build a firm foundation
The misuse of basic grammar can change the meaning and tone of your writing. It will actually save time in your communications if you can learn to take advantage of the way grammar makes writing more clear.
Sound business writing starts with the basics of grammar, including:
- Punctuation like commas, apostrophes, quotations, colons and full stops
- Capitalisation of proper nouns, the start of sentences and quotes
- Rules for sentence structure, subject-verb agreement and commonly confused words
2. Improve your business vocabulary
When you write, even in a simple email or report, you should always be thinking about your reader. Most crucially, your should understand how the words you use affect the reader. Start with:
- Word choice. Some words, like cheap and inexpensive, talkative and chatty, youthful and childish, both have the same meaning, but a different connotation, which changes how your writing is received.
- Jargon. Jargon is a vocabulary specific to a specific group of people. You need to know what words will go over the reader’s head and what will have meaning for them. Stay away from jargon which could confuse the reader and detract from your message.
- Voice. Another aspect of word choice is the difference between active and passive voice. Business writing can call for both, but it’s important to understand the difference and effect of each.
Improve your business vocabulary by listening in meetings, reading business articles, watching TED talks and taking cues from the writing of others with more experience or success in your field.
When you can pick the word that best communicates an idea to your audience, you’ll find it easier to inform and persuade through writing. Remember, in business writing, clear and simple works best, so keep sentences and words short.
3. Learn how to organise your ideas
Writing any sort of communication requires that you organise your thoughts coherently. Every time you go to write, think of it in terms of an:
- Introduction where you state your purpose
- Body where you support your purpose
- Conclusion where you call the reader to action
You should keep paragraphs short with the exception of formal reports. Always stick to one idea per paragraph. Short communications like IMs or emails should be focused on a single purpose.
4. Pay attention to format and readability
The internet has changed the way people read. Your business writing needs to follow suit. Learn how to make use of:
- Bullets and lists
- White space
People tend to scan first to determine both what you’re writing about and whether or not it has value to them. By making it more efficient for them to consume what you’ve written, you improve your ability to spread ideas or gain information.
5. Hone your writing process
Once you have some basic writing principles in hand, the best way to combat poor writing is to work on your process Remember the three-step program:
It will be easier to stay organised if you know what you want to say. Writing an outline doesn’t need to be time-consuming. For short communications, your outline will look more like a mission statement, such as:
- ‘I’m going to find out when the shipment is coming.’
- ‘I need to tell our social media followers about our latest promotion.’
For longer communications, create the outline first and then ‘fill in the blanks.’ This keeps your main points from getting jumbled together and diminishing the clarity of your message.
If you fiddle with every sentence as you write, it can be hard to create a cohesive final product. While every word and its placement matters, many times, it’s easier to edit yourself after you have the words on the page.
If you can learn to get your ideas out efficiently, it will leave you more time for the final and most important step.
- Re-read and self-edit
Always re-read what you write before pressing print, send or post. This will help you:
- Identify and remove unnecessary or redundant words and unrelated ideas
- Correct spelling, grammar and word usage mistakes
- Ensure the organisation and format are the best they can be
- Double check any words, spelling or grammar rules you are unsure of
With resources like Google, online dictionaries and thesauruses, spell check and the like, you can build an arsenal of resources to serve as reference tools while writing and editing and that will ultimately help you deliver better business writing.
Spread the word
Communication is a central skill for any successful professional, but good business writing isn’t just important to an individual – it’s important for a company too. You can take steps to focus on and improve your own business writing, but you should also take the lead when it comes to encouraging employees and colleagues to do the same.
Think about it like this: every time you or someone in your company hits the send button there’s a chance it will bring in the next big client, the next job or the next promotion. When you think about it like that, the importance of business writing becomes crystal clear.
Put time and energy into your own development and impress the importance of good business writing on those you manage for the good of your future success and the success of your company.