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Business Writing 101: Dos and Don’ts

As a professional, you likely write a lot. Emails, memos, proposals, more emails—they consume an awful lot of your time at the office.

Do you ever give much thought to how your writing comes across? Many do not. Even the most pedigreed MBAs and successful entrepreneurs have a tendency to focus only on the content, finding things like grammar, structure, and usage as secondary considerations. In many cases, they never learned how to master these stylistic elements in the first place.

But that very separation of words and ideas is just the problem—one is not different from the other. Knowing how to fashion an interesting and intelligent sentence is essential to communicating effectively, winning business, and setting yourself apart. In a world where much of ourselves is presented through online text, writing is nothing less than your reputation. Good writing will help you communicate your ideas more clearly, win more leads, and be a better businessperson.

So, assuming you recognize that your writing could use some help, where to start? Use the following guidelines to find areas for improvement.

 

DO:

Make an outline: This will help you structure your thinking. Too many writers skip this step and compose rambling, stream-of-consciousness missives that are difficult to follow. You don’t necessarily need to create a strict hierarchy of main point, subpoints, and supporting evidence like you learned in grade school, but you should take the time to think about what is most important to your readers.

Get to the point: While you’re creating your outline, be sure to address your most important take-away first. Business writing is not creative fiction, where expository build-up makes the main point more effective. Address the conclusion first, then follow it with the facts that led you to it. Your readers want the full story with as little effort as possible.

Read what you write: Not only will you find silly typos, you’ll also find places where you forget a word, lose rhythm, or need to break up a run-on sentence. You might also want to try reading your words to yourself out loud, a trick that famous authors have touted for years. If the writing style is a bit awkward in places, this technique will surely uncover it. You may need to go outside or find an empty office to do so, but your writing will be better for it.

Read (and practice) good writing: Stephen King once said “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Your job may not entail writing bestsellers, but the fact remains: to improve at writing, you must practice it. Reading great authors across a wide range of genres and disciplines will also help you master your own voice.

 

DON’T:

Use 3 words where one will do: In other words: “Less is more.” Remain mindful of your readers’ time, and be direct in what you say. You’ll lose a good portion of your audience with flowery or discursive writing.

Use jargon or overly fancy words: The most important thing to remember when writing is to be clear. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using big words or buzzwords in order to sound smart, but the truth is that they often have the opposite effect. Big, polysyllabic words often ruin the flow of a piece of writing, and buzzwords are often empty fillers used to mask the absence of real ideas.

Forget why you’re writing: Are you writing to inform? To propose a solution? To persuade? To make a sale? Never lose sight of your desired end results while crafting your message. Elements like a call to action or “5 Ws+H” (who, what, why, where, when, and how) may need to be incorporated, depending on your purposes.

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