Become a Better Writer With These 12 Questions
Writing client reports? Creating project paperwork? Renewing corporate policies? Sometimes it feels like we're all writing for a living! Business writing is everywhere, but why is so much of it so bad? There's that cringe-worthy client report that costs you the relationship, or that garbled internal document that creates endless misunderstandings, and sixteen emails later you're still not quite sure what's happening. The thing about writing is that it's everywhere, yet we often don't devote enough (or any) time to doing it better. Thankfully, armed with just a few best practices, everyone can become a better writer. Get smart on business writing today with these 12 simple questions.
1. Have I got an introduction?
It doesn’t matter what you call it: executive summary, stating purpose, preliminary statement – you want your piece of writing to start somewhere good. Here are a few different ways to approach an introduction:
- Start with a compelling fact, anecdote or nugget of data that illustrates your point. I could have gone with something like “60% of all business writing needs three hours of editing”, or “80% businesses lack a clear editorial policy” (both those facts are pulled from thin air I'm afraid).
- Summarise your key argument in a few sentences. You should write the introduction last, once you actually know what you want to say.
- Always make sure your introduction is well-written, as this is your first (and potentially last) chance to get your audience on-side. It's hard to convince people that you can write if the first thing they see is littered with errors.
2. Am I over-using passive language?
We tend to use the passive form far too often in business writing. Perhaps it's a hang-up from school where people were taught to avoid using ‘I’, and would instead litter their prose with vague verb clauses.
You can’t always be blunt and direct, but passive prose can be extremely confusing – most people would be better off cutting down on passive clauses. Here's some useful information on writing in the passive voice.
Passivity goes hand in hand with vague qualifiers and unnecessary adverbs. Use direct sentences to be clear on what an adverb or an adjective is modifying.
3. Is my formatting letting me down?
(In everyone's defence, Microsoft Word doesn’t make it easy for anyone navigating the world of formatting). The key to great formatting is consistency:
- Use headings and sub-headings to break up the text and make your document more coherent.
- End stop bullet points (or don’t) - pick a side.
- Never shift between text sizes and fonts without good reason.
- See formatting as a tree trunke, with the branches being your writing; the trunk has to be strong enough to hold all your word branches.
4. Is my jargon working for me?
Think using excessive industry jargon and terminology will lull your audience into thinking they are in the presence of a true expert? Think again. The truth is, excessive acronym usage smacks of a weak proposition.
If you must use lots of jargon, make sure it is clearly defined and avoid any gratuitous usage.
5. Have I triple-checked for grammar and punctuation?
Not capitalising proper nouns, incorrect use of commas and dashes, and sentences that seem as interminable as Monday mornings... These are just some of the frequent grammar and punctuation omissions that make understanding people’s writing painful.
Sense check your grammar by reading your text out loud or use an app like Grammarly.
6. Do I know my false friends?
Mixed metaphors and incorrect use of certain words (affect/effect anyone?) are hard to spot, but they can really undermine your writing. They will make your prose sound amateurish, so avoid them if you can.
Usually sensible proofreading is all that is needed to rid you of these textual thorns.
7. Am I repeating myself?
Weak writing is characterised by incessant repetition. Hammering something over and over again into your readers' consciousness won’t necessarily make them believe you, and your writing will start to sound shrill.
Say what you need to say, and move on.
8. Am I being too vague?
Writing without a clear point results in vague and confusing prose. Unclear prose is extremely difficult to follow.
Go back to the drawing board and do more research if you're not sure what you're saying.
9. Is my writing lacking in logic?
Structure is key for good writing. It’s surprisingly easy to write contradictory sentences, or to include ideas in one paragraph that really belong in another. Errors tend to creep in when you have selected the wrong word order in the first place, so make sure you are not writing topsy-turvy sentences.
Sense check your logical structure and edit ruthlessly for coherence.
10. Am I being diplomatic enough?
Diplomacy in business writing is about your tone of voice. In client or industry-facing documentation you will need to be wary of the following:
- Making too strong, bold claims that you aren't able to back up.
- Being too negative or personal about a client/service or product.
- Committing yourself to providing results in strict, measurable terms.
11. Have I proofread and edited my text properly?
Not properly editing your writing is rookier error #1. Every writer has to be a ruthless editor. Learn how to ‘kill your darlings’ and don't weep over the textual bloodbath. It's all in the name of better writing.
12. Have I left space for a decent conclusion?
Whether you just want to sum things up, or end on a concluding remark that opens up the conversation, don’t let your document trail off into nothingness.
Hopefully these pointers have inspired you to tackle your business writing with renewed enthusiasm. Writing is a difficult craft, but good writing can be learned and putting good copy in front of business partners, clients and investors is worth it.