Skills for Effective Writing in Business
As professionals, we are expected to know how to write content that conveys our thoughts, opinions and data. But how good are you at crafting a well thought-out, logical and convincing story that supports those thoughts, opinions or data? Writing is a medium that requires continual development throughout our careers, but many individuals do not practice these skills and fail to be effective in their writing.
Since written communication is critical to your success we’ve identified the below skills to help you maintain effective writing within the workplace.
Know Why You Are Writing
- You cannot begin any writing assignment until you identify what you want to say and why you want to say it. What is the purpose of your writing? Do you have more than one purpose? Are you telling a story? Identifying a problem? Are you trying to motivate? Do you have a personal agenda or a political agenda?
- The easiest way to determine what you want to say is to outline your key points by preparing an outline of your key points. An outline will help you to remember your purpose and keep your writing on track.
Know Your Audience
- Effective writing should always be tailored to its audience. Ask yourself the following questions: Who will be reading this document? Is this document aimed toward your fellow employees, your clients, or the government? How many people will be reading this document? Is your audience familiar with the subject material?
- In addition, it is important to note how much time your recipient will have to read the document. This will help you determine how long your document should be. What is the reader looking for? What questions might they ask in response to the document? These questions will help you determine how much information you need to include.
Present Important Points First
- To capture your audience’s attention, present your most important points first. You are not writing a suspenseful murder mystery in which you wait until the end. In business, you do not want to “surprise” your audience. You need to tell them up-front the most salient points of your communication and use your writing to support those points.
- Try to organize your material like a newspaper, with the most important points first and the least important points last. Write your individual paragraphs in the same manner: place the most important point at the beginning of each paragraph, then present the explanation and supporting points in descending order of importance. You should also use this technique at the sentence level, always being sure to place the most important words at the beginning of each sentence.
Be Clear and Concise
- Eliminate unnecessary information which will clutter your writing, obscure your points or waste the audience’s time. By eliminating unnecessary filler or descriptive words, you hit on the most important words of the document.
- Also, use short sentences and paragraphs. A simple rule is to break up sentences that are longer than two lines. In general, a paragraph should include no more than one or two ideas. When in doubt, split paragraphs and sentences in two at logical breaking points. Lastly, read your document out loud when you are finished. It should read naturally and should not sound stilted.
Use Simple, Specific Language
- Effective writers use simple words instead of ostentatious words. For example, an effective writer would use the word “start” instead of “commence”. Complex words take the focus away from the meaning of a word or a sentence. Effective writers also use concrete words and examples instead of vague language. Again, always be sure to read your document out loud. If it does not sound right, then something should probably be changed.
- Jargon are a set of words specific to any industry or group of people. Avoid jargon because it can be confusing to your audience (once again, KNOW your audience). It is also important to avoid certain words and phrases that are “in style.” Examples of faddish words include: actionable items, bottom line, cutting edge, hands on, interface, proactive, re-purpose, and skill set.
- Be clear and concise about what you want to say. Don’t be afraid that your audience will disagree with you. Use strong and not wishy-washy language to get your point across.
Use the Active Voice
- In the active voice, the subject performs the action. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. Passive sentences tend to be longer and harder for the reader to understand. Passive sentences tend to use forms of the helping verb to be (i.e., is, was, where, has been, have been, shall be, will be, etc.). The active voice makes a document come alive and seem more direct and vigorous.
- Some writers use passive language intentionally because they are afraid to take responsibility for their writing. Some writers also avoid the active voice to avoid confrontation. The passive voice does have its place in writing when the doer of the action is either unknown or is less important than the action itself, but, for the most part, business writing should employ active voice.
Guide Your Reader
- Help your audience to clearly understand your writing by providing signals and guideposts. Transitional words and phrases help to connect your thoughts and show your reader what is to come. Transitional words include: such as, furthermore, even so, and therefore.
- Another way to transition is to repeat a word from a preceding paragraph or by providing parallel construction in your writing. There are various categories of parallelism. Parallelism can be used in sentence structure or in the wording of a list of items or to the structure of elements within a sentence. Parallel construction clarifies meaning and creates a symmetry in writing.
- It is important to end your writing on a strong note. By using a firm ending, you will strengthen your point. A weak ending can diminish your writing and lead your audience astray. Remember to use direct and strong statements. The strongest ending will restate the major points of the writing or restate the benefits of following the outlined recommendations.
- The ending must also bring a sense of closure. Depending on the purpose of the document, you should include one of the following elements in your ending: a reiteration of important points, conclusions, recommendations for actions to be taken, suggested next steps, and/or an invitation for the reader to get involved.
Rest and Review Your Document
- You never want to send your document out right away. The best idea is to let your writing sit overnight and revisit it in the morning. This will allow you to approach your writing with a fresh eye and to edit it efficiently.
Don’t Rely on Spell Check
- Edit and review your document yourself. It’s important not to rely on a computer spell checking/grammar program. These programs do not recognize when a legitimate word is used incorrectly in a sentence.
- Editing is a must. You must not only check for spelling and grammatical errors; you must also make sure your document has the correct effect on its reader. When you edit, put yourself in the reader’s place. It is also important to review your document several times. Each time focus on a different paragraph. This can be a time-consuming process, but editing should account for almost half the time you spend on a document.
These are just some of the many considerations that you should take into account when creating a business document. If you want to further explore grammar and style writing points, I encourage you to check out Becker’s two-part OnDemand course, “Effective Writing for CPAs.”