Business Writing Tips
Business writing is both harder and easier than you think.
First, business writing includes formal letters on letterhead as well as a quick email. That email you sent to your co-worker asking if she knew where the copy paper was, that too is business writing.
Unless you’re in marketing, your primary communication is most likely email, so that’s what these tips concentrate on. However, these tips can be applied to other forms as well.
Most bad business writing I’ve seen falls into two categories, either the person put too much thought into the communication or not enough.
You’ve probably seen these too. A person who puts too much thought into it comes across as stuffy and verbose. It’s like they have their old high school English teacher sitting on their shoulder.
And a person who doesn’t put enough thought into the email usually leaves out vital information which means extra time spent going back and forth to get what’s needed. These people either are short on time or too quick to hit send. This usually causes frustration and can be seen as a waste of time.
Both of these writing habits can be fixed.
Writing is about communicating with someone
My mom likes to call me sometimes just to hear my voice. But it’s not like that with writing, especially business writing. No one emails a co-worker just to hear their voice. People write to each other because they have a reason to. They want something or want to pass on information.
But it’s more than just passing the ball into someone else’s court. They normally want something to happen as a result of the email. Writing is about creating a two-way communication. Write with the other person in mind.
Know your purpose
People get a lot of emails. As a result, they don’t read them word for word, instead, they scan for relevant content. Make this easier on your reader.
Know what you’re trying to accomplish and then word and order your email in a way that will get you the best results.
Think about the last email you opened and scanned. How much of it did you read?
If it’s short, you probably read the whole thing. But if it was long, you probably read the first sentence/paragraph and then anything that caught your attention like bullet points and headings.
Make sure the points you need to make are in these places. Don’t bury your purpose because you’re afraid to ask.
One of the vendors I work with sends emails that are only a screenshot. He gives a little detail in the subject line, but then the body of the email is a random image. This drives me crazy. Every time I get this I have to ask, what is this? So what? What are you trying to say? And so on. I’m not a mind reader. Plus, it feels passive-aggressive.
Once you know your purpose, be clear to your reader what it is. Don’t assume the other person will understand what you’re talking about.
Even if you’ve had a conversation and they are expecting the email. Give a little detail for reference. It goes a long way in case they either don’t get to it right away or archive it for later use.
Detail also helps the reader provide you better support. If you ask a yes or no question, you’ll get a yes or no answer. But if you provide detail on why you’re asking, you’ll get suggestions and feedback.
Be short and simple
Remember people are busy. They don’t have time to read unnecessary stuff. Put enough description in your email that your reader needs to understand the purpose and what they need to do.
And don’t talk around a subject. Sometimes we’re afraid to get to the point and tiptoe around it by using extra words to soften our request. You can get to the point and still be polite. These extra words hide your purpose and make it harder for the person to understand what you’re asking.
Now, I’m not saying don’t ever write a long email. There will be times when it makes more sense to send a long email rather than five short ones. If this is the case, consider breaking the email into sections and bullet points for easier reading.
I used to work with a sales rep who, in his emails to clients, would use big professional-sounding words. The type of language people think of when they think of business writing. I guess he thought this made him sound like an expert.
The thing is though, he didn’t talk like that in real life. Not to me, and not to clients. The emails he sent showed no signs of his fun personality, which was one of the reasons clients liked to work with him. In-person, he had warmth and humor, but in email, he could have been a machine.
Business writing doesn’t have to be stuffy. You don’t have to use big words. Obviously, you should stay away from slang and swear words, but it’s okay to loosen up a little.
Write in the professional voice you’d use talking in-person to your reader. Otherwise, you could come across as a ‘professional’ sounding used car salesman.
Read and edit before sending
ALWAYS read before sending.
Be sure names are spelled correctly.
Look for areas that sound wordy. Pretend you have to pay per word and you have a small budget. What can you get rid of? But be sure to still be clear and have enough details for the reader to help you.
Make sure your purpose is clear and in a spot that will be noticed.
Give deadlines and expectations so the reader can work it into their workflow.
Know when to pick up the phone
There are times when email is not the best medium for your message.
If your email sounds convoluted and you don’t know how to pare it down, then set up a time for a quick meeting.
If you email back and forth and your message is not getting across, pick up the phone.
Ultimately, business writing is about effectively communicating a work-related message.