If we spoke to our friends the way most people write at work, we wouldn’t have those friends for long.
After all, we’d be using bureaucratic words and long-winded phrases that would sound ludicrous if said out loud. The thing is, if it sounds ridiculous when spoken, it’s just as ridiculous when written down.
Write in plain English
Good business writing is not about using jargon and complex words in an attempt to seem professional. Instead, it’s about writing short, clear sentences using plain English that everyone can understand without having to reread a sentence.
Don’t try to impress people with your use of language, because it doesn’t work. Instead, if you do want to impress, then give the information they need immediately. Good writing is invisible: in other words, people shouldn’t even notice your words or sentence structures. Instead, they should simply focus on the ideas you’re getting across.
Don’t let your words get in the way of your message.
Imagine the reader while writing
If you spoke to a client or colleague face to face, I’m hoping you’d be professional. As such, it’s just as professional if you write the same way.
The trick to writing the way you speak is to imagine the reader. Picture them in front of you, and then think about what you would say to them. Nine times out of ten, that’s the way you should write to them as well.
Doing this will make it more likely that you’ll use plain English – and it’ll also help you lead with what’s most interesting to them.
When we’re sitting in front of a computer it’s easy to forget there’s a live human being who’ll be reading our copy – so imagining the reader is crucial. Visualise them and think:
- What are the benefits to them?
- What are the dangers?
- What do they need to know?
- Why would they care?
Which leads to my next tip, which is …
Think before you write
I hear a lot of writing tips, some of which are better than others. A common one is that people should just start writing and only then edit their work later.
People say this in an attempt to make others feel more comfortable about the process of writing – which is why I feel like a horrible old man when I say that no, that’s awful advice. As Truman Capote once said, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
It’s a lot harder to restructure your work once it’s begun than it is to take the time to think before you ever touch a keyboard. For starters, we often fall in love with our own work, and find it hard to delete something we created (hence the other famous writing saying that we need to kill our darlings).
Once we’ve started writing, our brains rapidly get used to whatever structure we’ve created – and it’s often only months later that we’ll reread what we’ve written and realise we got everything in the wrong order.
Back before word processors, writers had to stop and think – and think hard – about what they wanted to say before touching a typewriter. They’d formulate sentences and paragraphs in their head, churning them over before committing them to paper. We still need to do that.
Don’t waste people’s time
My final tip is simple: cut to the chase.
For example, it’s common to see executive summaries and briefs that are far too long – which negates the whole point of having them. For example, if a board member has to look at a brief before entering a meeting, they need to quickly see at a glance the essential points they need to know.
As such, think about what those points are – and then start by stating them. Keep in mind that most people can only hold three to four key points in their short-term memory.
Learn more by enrolling in my self-paced online Business Writing course
The better you write, the more effective you’ll be at work.
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