How to Improve Your Business Writing, Part 1

Most business writing is terrible. No doubt you’ve struggled to understand hastily written emails, rolled your eyes at vague company-wide directives, and pored over impenetrable technical reports. Bad writing is everywhere.

Want to avoid the bad writing trap? Here’s how.

Get to the Point

State your purpose as soon as possible. If you’re writing a memo outlining your concerns about the new Thunder Bay location of your business, don’t begin with a paragraph about who contributed to the memo or your methodology. Start by saying that you’re concerned about the new Thunder Bay location and say what exactly those concerns are. You can dip into details later.

Use Simple Language

Plenty of business books that can be found in the discount bin of your local second hand shop advise readers to “use better words” or “improve their vocabulary”. They suggest swapping out use for utilizehelp with assistanceread with peruse, and so on.

This is terrible advice. Do the opposite. Never use a word more complex than necessary. Compare these two statements

Statement one: Our organization is implementing improved strategies for promoting and educating customers regarding our world-class products. Key stakeholders should review these strategies in order to provide input and assessment to ensure that our narrative is one that reflects our internal goals, product strategies, and development possibilities.

Statement two: Our marketing strategy is under review. Department heads need to look over the new material and make sure that what we’re promising is what we can deliver.

Clearly, simple is better. You can check your writing by running it through the Gunning Fog index. Statement one has a score of 21.44, which means that it is understandable to someone who left formal education at the age of twenty-one and a half. Statement two has a score of 12.81, which means it is understandable to someone who left school after eighth grade.

Use the Active Voice

When a verb is active, the subject of the sentence is doing the action. For example:

Stephanie is collecting invoices ahead of Q1’s end.

Jared will update the website by Tuesday.

Preet’s team is writing a grant application.

When a verb is passive, the action is done to the subject. For example:

Invoices will be collected by Stephanie ahead of Q1’s end.

The website is being updated by Jared by Tuesday.

The grant application is being written by Preet’s team.

Readers pay closer attention to the active voice. It’s more direct and tends to create shorter sentences. The passive voice is common in formal writing, but it’s worth incorporating active language into your writing. Your audience will thank you.

The Bottom Line

By getting to the point immediately, using simple language, and using the active voice, you’ll make your writing clearer and more readable. Of course, there’s more you can do to improve your writing, so check back next week for part two of this series.