We spend all day writing, but how can you ensure that your writing is as clear and effective as possible? How do you make your communications stand out? In this article, journalist and writer Carolyn O’Hara gives some practical tips on how you can improve your business writing
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Harvard Business Review.
Overworked managers with little time might think that improving their writing is a tedious or even frivolous exercise – but knowing how to fashion an interesting and intelligent sentence is essential to communicating effectively.
Think before you write
Before you put pen to paper – or hands to keyboard – , consider what you want to say. Ask yourself ‘What should my audience know, or think, after reading this email, proposal, or report?’ If the answer isn’t immediately clear, you’re moving too quickly.
Make your point right up front. Many people find that the writing style and structure they developed in school doesn’t work as well in the business world. By succinctly presenting your main idea first, you save your reader time and sharpen your argument before diving into the bulk of your writing.
Cut the fat
Read your writing through critical eyes, and make sure that each word works toward your larger point. Cut every unnecessary word or sentence. There’s no need to say ‘general consensus of opinion,’ for instance, when ‘consensus’ will do. “The minute readers feel that a piece of writing is verbose they start tuning out,” says Bryan Garner, author of The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. He suggests deleting prepositions (eg. ‘point of view’ becomes ‘viewpoint’), replacing –ion words with action verbs (‘provided protection to’ becomes ‘protected’), using contractions (‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’ and ‘we’re’ instead of ‘we are’) and swapping is, are, was and were with stronger verbs (‘indicates’ rather than ‘is indicative of’).
Business writing is full of industry-specific buzzwords and acronyms and, while these terms are sometimes unavoidable and can, occasionally, be helpful as shorthand, they often indicate lazy or cluttered thinking. Throw in too many, and your reader will assume you are on autopilot — or worse, not understand what you’re saying. Writers often mistakenly believe using a big word when a simple one will do is a sign of intelligence. It’s not.
Read what you write
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Is your point clear and well-structured? Are the sentences straightforward and concise? Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management, suggests reading passages out loud. “That’s where those flaws reveal themselves; the gaps in your arguments, the clunky sentence, the section that’s two paragraphs too long,” she says. And don’t be afraid to ask a colleague or friend — or better yet, several colleagues and friends — to edit your work. Welcome their feedback; don’t resent it.”
Practice every day
Writing is a skill, and all skills improve with practice. Most importantly, build time into your schedule for editing and revising.
Great writing: principles to remember:
- plan what you will say to make your writing more direct and effective;
- use words sparingly and keep sentences short and to the point;
- avoid jargon and ‘fancy’ words. Strive for clarity instead.
- argue that you simply can’t write; anyone can become a better writer with practice;
- pretend that your first draft is perfect, or even passable; every document can be improved;
- bury your argument. Present your main idea as soon as possible.