10 Helpful Skills to Level-Up Your Business Writing
Professionals communicate with each other through forms of writing such as emails, reports and proposals. The writing style you use in these materials differs from personal writing and can affect the response you get from your colleagues, clients or audience. Good business writing skills can help you deliver information clearly and effectively.
Business writing is a form of writing used to communicate with coworkers, managers, stakeholders or clients. You use business writing to share information and ideas, deliver news or explain new processes. The four main types of business writing include:
This writing form gives readers the information they need to follow a new process at work. It might include steps for completing a task or solving a problem. You might use instructional business writing in memos, user manuals and product or design specifications.
This type of writing provides readers with information they can refer to and use to make decisions at their organization. You might use informational business writing in reports, financial statements and meeting minutes.
Professionals use persuasive writing to get the reader to make a particular decision, such as to buy a product or service. You might use this writing style in project proposals to clients, sales pitches or emails
Employees use this type of writing in their daily business communications to share information or get a specific reaction from coworkers or clients. You might use transactional business writing in professional emails, letters, direct messages and invoices.
10 useful business writing and communication skills
1. Clearly stating your purpose
Before you start writing, understand what you are writing and why. If you know the goal you’re trying to achieve by writing this document, you might reach it more easily. Also, make sure your business communication has a single, clear purpose rather than multiple points.
2. Using concise language
3. Knowing your audience
Your writing will be more effective if you can understand and connect with your audience and their interests. Choose your vocabulary and tone based on who you are communicating with. For example, use friendly and simple wording in press releases or newsletters.
4. Organizing your ideas thoughtfully
Start each piece of business writing with the most important information. Explain why you are writing, and state your message clearly and directly. This will help ensure everyone who reads your message will immediately understand its purpose.
5. Using the active voice
Active voice—a sentence structure in which the subject performs the action—is stronger, more concise and easier to understand than passive voice. Rather than saying, “Your proposal will be reviewed by our team,” for example, use the active voice to say, “Our team will review your proposal.”
6. Stating facts instead of opinions
7. Keeping your writing free of errors
8. Displaying confidence
Write with a confident tone to demonstrate your knowledge and credibility. Confidence can also make your reader more likely to respond how you want, from buying your product to accepting your decision.
9. Using simple formatting
Use clean and professional fonts and sizes so your writing is easy to read. Add features such as subheadings, white space and bullet points if they make the document easier to scan. Similarly, replace large pieces of text with charts or graphics when possible.
10. Maintaining adaptability for different types of writing
Business communications take many forms, which could include written reports, direct messaging or social media posts. Learn to adapt your tone and format for each platform while maintaining professionalism and a consistent voice.
“Keep it simple.” This classic piece of writing advice stands on the most basic neuroscience research. Simplicity increases what scientists call the brain’s “processing fluency.” Short sentences, familiar words, and clean syntax ensure that the reader doesn’t have to exert too much brainpower to understand your meaning.
By contrast, studies have shown that sentences with clauses nested in the middle take longer to read and cause more comprehension mistakes. Ditto for most sentences in the passive voice. If you write “Profits are loved by investors,” for example, instead of “Investors love profits,” you’re switching the standard positions of the verb and the direct object. That can cut comprehension accuracy by 10% and take a tenth of a second longer to read.
Tsuyoshi Okuhara, of the University of Tokyo, teamed with colleagues to ask 400 people aged 40 to 69 to read about how to exercise for better health. Half the group got long-winded, somewhat technical material. The other half got an easy-to-read edit of the same content. The group reading the simple version—with shorter words and sentences, among other things—scored higher on self-efficacy: They expressed more confidence in succeeding.
Even more noteworthy: Humans learn from experience that simpler explanations are not always right, but they usually are. Andrey Kolmogorov, a Russian mathematician, proved decades ago that people infer that simpler patterns yield better predictions, explanations, and decisions. That means you’re more persuasive when you reduce overdressed ideas to their naked state.
Cutting extraneous words and using the active voice are two ways to keep it simple. Another tactic is to drill down to what’s really salient and scrap tangential details. Let’s say you have researched crossover markets and are recommending options in a memo to senior leaders. Instead of sharing every pro and con for each market—that is, taking the exhaustive approach—maybe pitch just the top two prospects and identify their principal pluses and minuses.
Specifics awaken a swath of brain circuits. Think of “pelican” versus “bird.” Or “wipe” versus “clean.” In one study, the more-specific words in those pairs activated more neurons in the visual and motor-strip parts of the brain than did the general ones, which means they caused the brain to process meaning more robustly.
Years ago scientists thought our brains decoded words as symbols. Now we understand that our neurons actually “embody” what the words mean: When we hear more-specific ones, we “taste,” “feel,” and “see” traces of the real thing.
Remarkably, the simulation may extend to our muscles too. When a team led by an Italian researcher, Marco Tettamanti, asked people to listen to sentences related to the mouth, hand, and leg—“I bite an apple”; “I grasp a knife”; “I kick the ball”—the brain regions for moving their jaws, hands, and legs fired.
Using more-vivid, palpable language will reward your readers. In a recent letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t say, “We’re facing strong competition.” Channeling Tettamanti’s research, he wrote, “Third-party sellers are kicking our first-party butt. Badly.”
Another specificity tactic is to give readers a memorable shorthand phrase to help them retain your message. Malcolm Gladwell coined “the tipping point.” Management gurus W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne came up with “blue ocean strategy”; essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “black swan event.”
Review and correct your information and organization
Trying to fix the language and words in your business documents before the information and substance is accurate, relevant, and well organized is just like putting lipstick on a pig. Sentence improvements will never fix gaps in content or disorganization.
To hone good information and organization:
Sequence the information logically. What category would lead best and what category should close? Remember the acronym B.L.O.T. – bottom line on top. 90% of business documents should begin with the information most important to your audience. This beginning statement should be the purpose statement you identified while you analyzed your audience.
The concluding information should elicit the business response you seek.
For example, let’s imagine you are an insurance sales representative and a client has inquired about adding additional flood insurance to her homeowner’s insurance policy. You know this coverage would be beneficial to her, and it would increase business, so you want your reader to understand the benefits and purchase the additional coverage.
Your introduction could be:
The additional flood insurance coverage would protect your home if it were to flood because of hurricanes, river overflows, or excessive rain. All of these hazards have increased in your area in the past five years by 36%.
To enact this coverage, please sign the enclosed coverage agreement on both pages three and five. Scan the signed coverage agreement into a PDF document and email it back to me by May 13.
Look back at your sample work documents. By following these steps, can verify that your information is correct? And, breaking it down will help you identify where you tend to lose focus.
Next, review and correct your format
Everyone makes different grammar and stylistic errors, so nothing will improve your business writing as well as business writing training that includes a professional instructor review of your writing. If that is not possible, you will need to self-diagnose your language and grammar.
Run at least ten recent documents through Grammarly . Grammarly is an excellent spelling and grammar checker that will flag errors and explain what is wrong. You want to look for patterns.
If, for example, Grammarly tells you that you made three “me, myself, and I” errors across your documents, accept that as a strong indicator that “me, myself, and I” usage is an error you need to correct.
Run all of your documents through Grammarly and compile a list of all the errors Grammarly diagnosed. Grammarly is not foolproof, but it’s quite good to help ensure correct grammar. Without a professional review of your business writing, it’s the best objective assessment.
Purdue OWL has detailed explanations and exercises to help clarify your understanding and use of that grammar rule. Stay with the exercises until your grammar understanding of this first error is corrected.
Once you feel comfortable with the correction of your first grammar error, then move on to the next. Make sure you’re comfortable with your new grammar skills before you move on because grammar correction is primarily a habit of practice. Your grammar skills will improve from awareness and practice.
How to hone clarity
Business Writing Clarity Strategy #1: “Unsmother” your verbs
Imagine watching a Bruce Willis movie that shows Bruce napping or knitting or whittling on a park bench for 90 minutes. Bored yet? So too are readers if your writing has little action or wimpy verbs.
Business Writing Clarity Strategy #2: Avoid adverbs
Business Writing Clarity Strategy #3: Use shorter words
Years back, some business writers felt they conveyed their intelligence more by using long words when short words worked better. Long words don’t make you sound intelligent unless used very skillfully and judiciously. In the wrong situation, they’ll have the opposite effect, making you sound pretentious and arrogant. They’re also less likely to be understood and more awkward to read.
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
Fine, but can be improved:
It has never been a good writing practice to use big words indiscriminately.
It has never been a good writing practice to use big words needlessly.
(“Needlessly” is shorter and simpler than “indiscriminately.”)
It has never been a good writing practice to bloat with big words.
(More powerful verb “bloat” instead of the vague verb “use” eliminates the need for modifying adverb “needlessly.”)
Here is a sound rule: Use small, old words where you can. If a long word says just what you want to say, do not fear to use it. But know that our tongue is rich in crisp, brisk, swift, short words. Make them the spine and the heart of what you speak and write. Short words are like fast friends. They will not let you down.