Writing business documents – an article, report, blog, letter or email – is quite a different proposition to writing a novel. (For starters, there are usually far fewer unicorns or troubled detectives.)
Perhaps you're writing for your own company, or maybe you're looking to do more corporate writing for organisations. Whatever the case, cast your eye over our collection of top 10 common errors … and how to avoid them.
1. Pluralising a company
Companies are single entities – and so we should refer to them as singular. For example, we wouldn’t say “Apple are going to release a new iPhone next week”. Instead, we just imagine replacing the company name with “it” (or even a person, like “Steve”) and it makes sense as the correct version: “Apple is going to release a new iPhone next week”. Note, even a company like “XYZ Chemicals” should still be treated as a singular. So “XYZ Chemicals is not commenting on the iPhone rumours” would be correct.
2. Not stating the conclusion first
People feel tempted to build the building blocks in a paragraph or long copy piece. However, this isn't a comedy routine – get straight to the punchline and cut to the chase! Business people are, well, busy. As such, they want to know the conclusion first and then the supporting facts. Journalists know this only too well – generally delivering a ‘synopsis’ of their story in the opening lead paragraph, before going into more detail. With business writing, you need to do the same. Conclusions first, evidence second.
3. Not identifying your target reader
A lot of people just start writing, without actually knowing who they’re writing for. This can make a huge difference to the words and tone that you use. So take some time to figure out who will be reading your words – gender, level of expertise, experience etc. If it helps to personify them, do so. (“Sue from Accounts” or “Bob, retiree, from Ballarat”.) Picture them. Write for them.
4. Not using consistent key terms
At school, your English teacher may have instructed you to use “variety” in your prose – not to use the same expression twice. However, in business writing, simplicity is essential. You need your readers to understand each time that you mean the same thing. So keep it called exactly the same thing. For example, don’t refer to a “training room” as a “lecture room” then a “training venue” and then a “learning centre” – if they’re all names for the same thing. (In fact, often you may not even need the repetition at all.)
5. Empty headings
Headings and subheadings are vital to any business writing; they're the way-finders in a sea of words. And for that reason, you must treat them like the signposts that they are and avoid headings such as “Introduction” or “Background” that actually tell you nothing. Your headings should be useful and lead into the copy, stating what is about to come. But don't go too far – leave the funny or pun-laden headlines behind. They can confuse the reader and help with the document's understanding. Be clear and concise!
6. Being vague rather than specific
Give your reader all the information. Chances are you won't be sitting alongside them when they read what you’ve written, so try and answer any questions. For example, writing “If you get stuck in the building after hours, contact security,” is fine. But writing “If you get stuck in the building after hours – between 6pm and 8am Monday to Friday – contact security on 0400 123 456,” is better.
7. Using jargon
This can come down to knowing who your target audience is. However, generally you should never assume that your reader knows a specific term or acronym just because you're around it all day. (For example, in the banking industry, the average person may not understand what GDP or hedging is.) The key here is to explain it the first time you mention it, and not at all after that.
8. Writing passively
Active style is more lively and reaches a reader directly. “He threw the ball” is active, versus “the ball was thrown by him” being passive. By making the subject lead the sentence, it increases engagement with the readers. Occasionally it’s okay to use a passive voice in business writing, but generally the direct approach is better.
9. Using loooong sentences
Business writing is no place for Charles Dickens, and yet word count isn't always a great indicator of the ‘flow' of a sentence. But if you have to pause and take a breath, it’s time to pull out all the stops on putting in a full stop. Generally speaking, around 15-20 words is an ideal length, such as the sentence you have just read. Punchy sentences are also powerful. Very dramatic. However, if you’ve strayed over 30 words, you should consider splitting your sentence. It helps readers – making them actually want to read on.
10. Being indirect
Business writing is all about looking your reader in the eye and having a “straight-up” conversation. And it doesn't matter whether you're writing for an external customer or an internal document – don't be afraid to give instructions directly. For example, don’t say “Customers are required to complete this form and return it to their nearest branch,” when you could instead state, “Please complete this form and return it to your nearest branch.” Both work, but the latter shows confidence.
Want to know more? If you're near Sydney, check out our business writing courses coming up very soon.