As soon as you type a word, you’ve put something out there that you can be judged on.
Are you a competent professional? Are you clever? Are you the kind of person who should be taken seriously?
From lawyers at top City law firms and project managers in the public sector to bid writers for construction firms, everyone feels this pressure to write well. Poor writing could mean a networking email failing to secure a crucial relationship, a report with careful analysis getting ignored or even losing a multi-million pound bid.
Our confidence is rarely helped by getting documents rejected by managers or getting poor feedback from peers.
But you’ve arrived here because you want to improve. And you’re right to care about your writing. Improving your writing skills helps save you time. It gets your ideas across with greater impact and more memorably. It builds trust.
In short, improving your writing will make you better at anything you do, whether you’re the CEO of a multibillion pound corporation tweeting to your followers, or an intern trying to make an impression in your first job.
But ‘improve your writing’ is too vague to suggest any concrete action, meaning it’s likely to go on the same forgotten list as ‘learn the clarinet’ or ‘become fluent in Spanish’. This article aims to change that.
As with any skill, improving business writing takes some commitment. This article will take about eight minutes to read. In return, you’ll learn a framework for improving your writing skills for the rest of your life.
Where to start?
All too often, articles on how to improve your business writing start immediately with suggestions like ‘use the active voice’ or ‘write simply and clearly’. That’s fine, but you need something more than that if you’re actually going to improve.
Let’s face it: there’s a great deal to explore on the subject of improving your business-writing skills. But here are the most essential elements of improving anything you write:
Get your objective clear. Why are you writing what you’re writing? Getting that nailed down makes everything else much more logical and straightforward.
Make the reader the centre of everything you write. The better you understand and anticipate the reader’s needs, wants and concerns, the better your writing will be.
Have a writing process. Opening Word and diving headfirst into Untitled.doc is rarely the best approach, especially for longer and more complex documents. Breaking your task into logical, manageable steps will make life easier for you and greatly improve the chances of your document meeting its objective.
Pay attention to the main problems that writers have. These include not being clear, being too wordy or long-winded, poor or illogical structure, using incorrect grammar and punctuation, and being dull.
Get feedback from your readers (and professional feedback if you can get it). All writers can benefit from feedback – though some examples of feedback are much more useful and actionable than others.
Focus on these five things, and your business writing will improve. Let’s take them from the top.
Business writing: it’s about your objective
All business writing has an objective. It’s always trying to achieve some end.
A board report might aim to get the board to take action and increase a department’s budget. Or it could simply aim to keep them informed and happy that a project is proceeding to plan, so they don’t feel compelled to act to change anything.
In both cases the task is the same: write a board report. But the objective is different.
Getting your objective clear is the crucial first step before everything else that follows. Once you understand your objective, you can work on every other problem, from getting to the point to being persuasive – because you understand what objective any part of your document is working towards.
Avoid being ‘kind of’ sure about why you’re writing what you’re writing. In our experience, this state of not really knowing exactly what you’re doing is a stressful place to be and one where you’re most likely to procrastinate. Unless you’re certain, writing itself will probably be very heavy going too.
The easiest way to get clearer about your document’s objective is to write down what you think it is and compare it with your reader’s understanding. The best scenario is if you can ask them directly (for example, if it’s your line manager). In this case, you could say: ‘Here’s what I think you want from this document – does this seem right to you?’. If you’ve already begun, ask them to review whatever you have for the broad structure and content. (If you can’t ask your readers, the next section will help.)
Having a clear objective is just as important if you’re contributing to a document. It’s easier to knit together pieces of writing from different people if everyone’s written with the same objective in mind. And if you’re responsible for putting together a big document, such as a bid or tender, it’s the same story: make sure contributors know why they’re writing what they’re writing.
Think of your readers
Once you know what your document has to achieve, it’s time to think like a psychologist. You need to get a better understanding of what motivates and interests your reader.
Key questions to ask yourself before you begin include:
How much do they care about the subject at hand?
Much of the time, you’re going to be dealing with people with varying degrees of interest – from those who are extremely interested and enthusiastic about your subject to others who’d rather do practically anything else than read your document.
In the latter case, you’re going to need to work very hard to keep them interested from the very beginning, and you’ll need to make sure you get to the point.
How much do they know?
If you’re responding to an email from two weeks ago, will they still remember what it’s about? And if you use a technical term, are you certain your audience will understand it?
So much advice about business writing talks about plain English – but this often misses out the fact that plain English is relative to your audience’s knowledge. It’s fine for an internal report read by a small handful of internal specialists to assume a different level of knowledge from a blog post aimed at a general audience.
What are they expecting from the document?
A successful document is one where what you write matches your reader’s expectations. If they’re expecting a recommendation, don’t bury it after several pages of analysis. If they want to dig deep into your reasoning and conclusions, be sure to include your original data.
To really get inside your reader’s head, try going through all the questions in our reader-profile questionnaire systematically:
Why you need a writing process
Once you are clear on your objective and have a good sense of what your reader’s wants and concerns are, you need to begin working on your document. Unfortunately, too many people approach writing with no clear process, so this can feel like a daunting prospect.
If you’re one of them, try this six-step process to help you structure your business writing.
1. Establish your objective: get clear on why you’re writing what you’re writing.
2. Do your research: gather all relevant information together.
3. Plan: establish your broad structure and your key messages.
4. Draft: get your words down.
5. Edit: revise your draft and make everything flow together.
6. Proofread: look for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors.
There’s a lot of scope for varying this process. Some people prefer to spend lots of time on the planning phase, as they find it makes their first draft easier to write. Others emphasise the editing phase more, preferring to have a more basic initial structure and then doing heavier editing on their first draft.
But whatever you do, diving in from scratch with little understanding about who you’re writing for and why is rarely the fastest way to produce a high-quality document. You’ll end up carefully crafting paragraphs, only to edit them heavily or cut out whole sections later on. Or you’ll spend ages figuring out your introduction, leaving very little time to finish the rest of the document. The worst case is when someone spends hours writing something but ends up with a poorly structured mess that doesn’t really address any of the reader’s needs or concerns.
The big problems
What about the nuts and bolts of improving your writing, paragraph by paragraph, word by word?
While there is no end of articles that could be written about the nuances of improving your writing (we’re up to about 400 on the subject here on our blog), the core problems are:
- writing with no clear purpose
- long-winded or ‘waffly’ writing
- poor grammar and punctuation
- poor structure
- documents that are just plain uninteresting.
You could write a book about working on these problems. And we have – you can download our free 64-page guide to better writing here:
Receiving and acting on feedback from colleagues
Getting feedback from colleagues can be a pretty horrible experience. Too often, we’re given a list of technical errors and stylistic opinions about apostrophes and Oxford commas. Worse, your reader may have some mistaken ideas about what makes good writing. Classic examples are things like, ‘You should never start a sentence with an “and” or a “but”.’ Or, ‘You should never split an infinitive.’
The best feedback, however, can provide crucial insights. As writers, we are often too close to our own words to gauge their effects on others. Your readers will be seeing your words for the first time, so listen carefully if they tell you a certain section was confusing or they found that you repeated yourself in a few places.
To make sure you get the best feedback you can, experiment with asking for specific kinds of feedback. For example, ask for feedback on content (facts and figures), or on tone and style (such as perceived grammar errors). And if you’re worried about something in particular, such as how easy to understand something is or whether the structure seems logical, ask for feedback on that.
Getting professional feedback
External feedback from a writing professional can help you improve much more quickly.
Like your colleagues, they won’t be as close to your document as you, meaning they’re well-placed to spot problems you’re likely to miss. But in addition to this, professional writing trainers are able to spot and diagnose problems that even competent writers could miss.
On our writing courses, we use a writing analysis tool that categorises writing problems into 15 separate areas. Grammar is one, punctuation is another. That leaves another 13 ways that your writing can be improved.
This isn’t just something that applies to ‘people who aren’t good writers’. One of the biggest secrets in writing is that everyone can benefit from good external feedback.
That really does mean anyone – even professional writers of bestselling books. Anything you read that’s gone through a major publisher will have been edited, tweaked and revised, often many times, by a team of editors and proofreaders. Whole chapters will have gone, entire parts rephrased, examples rejected and material packed off into endnotes.
You don’t need to be a bestselling author to get this external feedback, though. Finding a good writing professional can give you the same insight – whether that’s an in-house person with expertise, a professional writing trainer or an editor.
Improving your writing is a lifelong task. Like any complex skill, there’s always something new to learn.
We’ve outlined the most important fundamentals of good writing in this post, but there are many ways to keep you incrementally getting better. You can do this passively by improving the quality of your reading, and actively by solving office grammar disputes quickly.
And if you enjoyed this post and want to learn more, get the fourth edition of our 64-page guide to better professional writing, The Write Stuff. It’s the product of our 19 years’ experience helping professionals in every sector and industry write emails, reports, proposals, technical documents and more, and it’s trusted by over 40,000 professionals worldwide.
17 / 02 / 15
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