Making Business Writing Better
I write a lot. It’s a huge part of what I do both at my day job and outside of it. Getting my thoughts down on paper either with words or pictures (usually both) is how I think. When I say I write, I mean that I regularly make sentences that have a purpose, and I review and revise them like nobody’s business.
Lately, I’ve become very interested in business writing and a trend I’ve seen ever since I’ve worked at a company where I consult and improve on other companies’ writing.
Most business writing is pretty bad.
How I’ve come to this opinion is solely based on the fact that so often after reading something business-related, I ask myself, “what did that even mean?”
How many times have you read website content, emails, descriptions, unique selling points…and not really taken away anything from it? How many times have you read business writing and it’s filled with loaded words that just feel like sales fluff?
I consider myself someone that has a decent reading comprehension. And I don’t think this idea of awful business writing is really a question of intelligence or reading comprehension at all. It’s more of a question of why can’t businesses write more clearly so that normal people can understand what they are trying to say. You shouldn’t have to be a genius to follow along. More so, you shouldn’t have to fight the fluff to get to the true meaning of a piece of writing.
So why is it like this?
Honestly, I think it’s a lot of the same reasons we all probably used to pull out a thesaurus (or thesaurus.com) and look for big words we didn’t know to replace the small words we knew. It made us sound like we had an impressive vocabulary and maybe it masked the fact that we didn’t have much to say.
I read an article that was tweeted over the weekend and I think the writer, Jason Fried put it nicely.
“Unfortunately, years of language dilution by lawyers, marketers, executives, and HR departments have turned the powerful, descriptive sentence into an empty vessel optimized for buzzwords, jargon, and vapid expressions. Words are treated as filler — “stuff” that takes up space on a page. Words expand to occupy blank space in a business much as spray foam insulation fills up cracks in your house. Harsh? Maybe. True? Read around a bit, and I think you’ll agree.”
I completely agree. I’m a marketer and it pains me to think people with titles like mine are contributing to the noise, crap and meaningless sentences filling business writing.
Instead of giving all this research and reasons I think business writing sucks, I prefer to be part of the solution. Here are some steps that I go through when I’m trying to revise, create or work on any type of writing.
5 Ways to Make Business Writing Better
1. Identify the Goal of Your Writing
I think this is overlooked a lot of times with all writing. Every time you write an email, begin a strategy or put your pen to paper, identify what your goal or purpose is. “I want the recipient of this email to understand/do/be aware of X.” “I want readers of this content to perform X action.” This gives you a clearer idea of what you’re writing for and paves the way for the actual content that should make up your writing.
2. Identify Your Audience
Even if your audience is full of lawyers, philosophers, etc. they’d probably appreciate if you cut the fluff and got to the point. Write for real people. Don’t use big words because you feel it makes your writing seem better, more elite or profound. It just makes it harder to cut through. If you want someone to get something from your writing (because you’ve identified your goal), keep it simple. Say what you want to say.
3. Identify All the Questions Your Writing Should Answer
It’s the same as going into a presentation or an interview or anything. You need to identify as many questions as possible that you may get based on your writing. Identified them? Great. Incorporate the answers.
4. Get Out a Piece of Paper. Make an Outline.
Sometimes we forget what it was like to write before a blinking cursor in a big white space staring at us in the face. There’s something about pen and paper. Make an outline using your hands. They help with determining the flow and direction of your writing.
5. Say What You Mean
Again, avoid the fillers. There are still plenty of ways to write compelling content with style that exclude the big words, sales speak and jargon. Having trouble with this? Say what you’re trying to say out loud as if you were explaining it to someone. Now write that down.
6. Get Someone Else to Read It
Another set of eyes is always useful. They see things that you may have overlooked over and over again from grammatical errors, awkward sentences to important things you forgot. Also, another set of eyes will tell you if you’re making sense or not.
Writing is hard. But the best advice I give to people is to say what you mean. Actually, the best advice I give to people on writing is to “write the shitty first draft” already and then worry about editing. Keep these points in mind when you write that first draft.