It’s hard to think of a day where you don’t write anything. We are such a connected society that you probably write emails, texts, instant messages, or even business proposals before you officially start your workday.
And because writing is everywhere, it’s important to stand out from the crowd. Establishing yourself as a clear writer can open up a lot of doors in your career. Clear writing can prompt others to act, persuade coworkers to get on board with your idea or convince customers to buy what you’re selling. Unclear writing, on the other hand, can be detrimental. Complex or vague writing can lead to lost sales, budget overruns, and failure to meet deadlines.
So, it’s critical to make sure your writing stands out in the right way. Below are 8 ways to make your business writing clearer.
Most people aren’t born fantastic writers. The good news is that writing is a learnable skill. Each of the following tips will get you started on your journey to becoming a clearer business writer.
You can’t write a great piece of writing without thinking deeply about it. If you’ve ever written a last-minute essay, you know how hard it is to put pen to paper without a fully fleshed-out idea. Instead of twiddling your thumbs, set aside several hours or even days to think through what you want to say and the actions you want readers to take. Are you writing to distribute information? Are you defining a complex concept? Are you hoping to sway an investor? Thinking about these goals should influence how you write.
It may seem like a waste of time, but the best writers do this. In an interview with Tim Ferriss, notable Canadian writer, Malcolm Gladwell, said: "For every hour I spend writing, I spend three hours thinking about writing." Even Ernest Hemingway once said, “My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing."
Jot down notes or record memos on your phone. Talk to others about what you’re going to write about and get their feedback. Dig into what your audience cares about or might be scared of. Once you’ve thought about a topic long and deep enough, writing comes surprisingly naturally.
It’s tempting to use words like “superfluous ” or jargon like “circle back,” but people will understand and appreciate your writing more without those terms. These words sound make it seem like you're trying too hard. Most of the time, fancy words aren’t used appropriately, which causes misunderstanding. Alternatively, write as if you’re talking to a friend who isn’t intimately familiar with your work.
For instance, rather than saying “the current situation,” explain exactly what the circumstances are. Even if your audience knows exactly what’s going on, it’s good to lay out the problem as you see it. People also get turned off by cliches like “as a matter of fact” and “for all intents and purposes,” and acronyms like “ROI” and “KPI.”
Reduce your use of adverbs, too. Ambiguous words and phrases aren’t descriptive and distract from your arguments. The next time you’re about to use a filler word like “really,” or “basically,” replace it with an English equivalent.
If you’re not sure how much your readers know about a topic, err on the side of giving more context. Adding a bit of background at the beginning of your writing can ensure your readers are on the same page as you. Think about the frame of reference they have and what they may not yet understand. That said, don’t bog your writing down with extra detail. Provide just enough information that your readers can make a decision or come to a conclusion as simply as possible.
People are always strapped for time. They want to know what your point is soon into reading your writing. So respect that and be succinct. Write short sentences and use short, digestible words. Remove emotion and extra fluff, and get to your thesis or question right away. Brevity in business writing isn’t rude. On the contrary, sharing your idea upfront shows you respect your peers’ and customers’ time. As Kara Blackburn, a lecturer at MIT Sloan says, “simplicity doesn’t mean simplicity of thought.” Making it easier for your reader to determine your main point is a professional courtesy.
Let’s face it, what floating around in our brain doesn’t always make sense. Writing in the order we think of things can end up boring or alienating readers. An outline can help you figure out how to best frame your thoughts. Write down bullet points of each thing you want to get across. Review this list and start rearranging it into a logical order with vital information at the beginning. Read your outline aloud to find sections that don’t belong or areas that might be missing. The goal is to make your writing easy, not difficult, to follow.
Besides streamlining the writing itself, pay attention to other aesthetic elements like bolding important words, breaking up text with subheadings, and using numbered points to illustrate steps in a process. It’s also important to know your medium. If you’re attempting to secure budget for a new project, start with a business proposal template. If you want to help your customers learn about a certain feature, try writing in a blog post format. If you know you need to write a long message to someone, don’t send it over Slack. Instant messengers are supposed to be a quick way to communicate. Forcing your coworkers to take time away from their jobs to read a lengthy message is especially wasteful for resource-strapped companies.
After you’ve got a first draft written, take a break. Come back to your writing after a while. Ask yourself what could be said better. Find ways to be more concise and adjust your tone, if it feels off. It also helps to determine whether you’ve done a good job answering the classic journalism questions: how, where, when, why, who, and what. Of course, be sure to turn on spelling and grammar checks and fix those errors right away. You can also use tools like Homer that surface overly complex sentences and passive voice.
No draft is perfect—it often takes not one, not two, not three, but multiple drafts to get your message to where you want it to be. Go over spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Ensure you have correct subject-verb agreement and remove passive voice. Rewrite sentences to be present tense.
Re-read your writing aloud to find stumbling blocks or parts that aren’t really of value. Mention people by name instead of using pronouns to avoid confusion. Finally, ask a friend, colleague, or family member to be your trusted editing partner. Find out if they got the gist of your writing and ask them what they thought could be improved.
Today, being a good writer is crucial. No matter whether you’re a software engineer, sales rep, customer support representative, or product manager, business writing can help you showcase your expertise, gain trust, and get things done. Writing clearly isn’t always easy to do at work. But by reserving time to think, using simple words, making your point quickly, and going through ample revisions, you too can reap the benefits of being a clear writer.
To make your writing even better, consider downloading Homer. Homer proactively points out long sentences and paragraphs, words with lots of syllables, and extra adverbs that clutter your writing. Learn more about how Homer increases clarity and decreases complexity with a free trial.