You’ve spent the past three or four years writing essays and reports, and now you’re in your first professional job and ready to start writing for business. But does your degree have you covered? Well, yes and no, writes Cathy Relf.
The good news is that because you’ve developed good analytical and organisational skills, you’ll be well versed in sorting your ideas into separate sections or chapters, and supporting your arguments with facts, figures and evidence.
The bad news is that the style and structure of academic writing varies hugely from the style and structure you’ll need to adopt for professional business writing. Whereas academic writing tends to be wordy, expansive and, well, a little dull, business writing needs to be lively, straight to the point and immediately engaging.
Follow these three steps to shake off the academic shackles and bring out your business voice.
1. Engage your reader immediately
The biggest difference between writing for university and writing for work is that, at work, no one’s obliged to be interested.
Interested though they surely were, your lecturers were paid to read your essays. However verbose the style or tenuous the argument, they had to pay attention to every sentence on every page, right through to the bitter end.
In the professional world, no one will do that unless you hook them in at the start and keep them interested. You have to earn – and then retain – your reader’s attention at every step.
Luckily, there’s a radical – yet simple – change you can make that will instantly improve your ability to engage the reader.
At university, you probably laid out all your evidence and information first, and followed them with a conclusion at the end. In business, you generally need to get to the point right at the start – you’re not discussing the topic, you’re offering your expert opinion and backing it up with hard evidence.
Here’s a simple, four-point formula for grabbing your reader’s attention and getting straight down to business.
a) Outline the context
Establish the common ground between you and your reader, in no more than a line or two.
b) Describe the trigger
Explain why you are writing this now. What is it that has changed or must change? Again, keep this to just a line, two at the maximum.
c) Ask a question
Raise an action-orientated question, such as ‘How do we prevent this?’, ‘How do we prepare for this?’ or ‘How do we reduce the cost of this?’
d) Give the answer
Answer the question with your recommendation or key finding, giving a complete solution in no more than 25 words.
Now you have their attention.
Use the rest of your document to explain how and why you have arrived at this recommendation.
2. Take your brain for a pint
Remember all those student nights you spent trying to make your words of wisdom heard above the combined noise of a bad DJ, 30 drunken friends and the call of ‘tequila’? They weren’t wasted.
The rest of your document should comprise organised sections or chapters that back up the recommendation you made in step 1. Before you start writing each section, imagine you had 30 seconds to tell it to a friend in a noisy pub. It’ll help you do the following three things naturally:
a) Use everyday words – and as few as possible
The more directly your reader can understand you, the better. So cross out ‘ameliorate’, ‘expeditious’, and ‘promulgate’ and replace them with ‘improve’, ‘fast’ and ‘issue’. And do you really need to say ‘in order to’, rather than ‘to’? Could you cut down ‘in the field of’ to ‘in’? Is ‘eliminate altogether’ really more effective than just ‘eliminate’? Go through your draft and remove any words that aren’t pulling their weight. The clearer your writing is, the clearer your message.
b) Be active, not passive
As a general rule, use active verbs, rather than passive. It keeps your writing lively, direct, personal and accountable. Just put the ‘doer’ at the start of the sentence. So instead of writing ‘it is hoped that the project will be completed in December’, write ‘we hope to complete the project in December’.
c) Prefer verbs to nouns
Verbs are more direct than nouns. So when you’re editing your work, cut out nominalisations such as ‘achieve cost reductions’ and ‘undertake the implementation of’ and replace them with ‘reduce costs’ and ‘implement’ – or, simply, ‘do’.
3. Focus on your formatting
Good formatting can make such a difference to the clarity of your document. There are few things as off-putting as pages of block text. Well-formatted text is kinder on the eye, easier to navigate and more memorable.
a) Keep it short and simple
Don’t try to cram too much into your sentences. Break them down so that each sentence deals with just one idea, and link your ideas logically. It’s fine to start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ if it helps clarify your message. Similarly, it’s not unusual to see suffocatingly long paragraphs in academic writing. But in business writing, you’ll need to be more succinct. Vary the length of your paragraphs, but try not to go beyond five sentences in each. And if you have a particularly important sentence, don’t be shy of giving it a paragraph all to itself.
b) Use engaging headings and sub-headings
Use regular, clear headings and sub-headings to break up the text. Avoid label-style headings, and instead use explicit ones that sum up the section. This helps the reader find sections most appropriate to them, and also makes it easy for them to refer back to relevant sections later.
c) Put a bullet in it
When you’re writing a list of points that can speak for themselves, use bullets or numbers. They will stand out much better than if you cram them all into a paragraph of text, and it’s easier on the reader’s eye.
d) Would a graph work better?
When writing about data, figures and processes, ask yourself whether a graph, pie chart or diagram could communicate the same information more effectively.
Keep this checklist handy when you’re writing your documents, and soon it will begin to become habit. And if you’d like practical training in applying these techniques (and many more), why not get us in to train your team, or book a place on one of our High-impact business writing courses in London?
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