Before I switched into freelance writing, I worked for a small IT company and had the lofty job title of “Head of Documentation”. This meant I was the person who got landed with writing the software user guides, helping out on company reports, and proof-reading promotional leaflets. I can definitely say that writing for DLM is more exciting! But my experiences of office life, along with my writing for my own business purposes (and editing copy for clients), have helped me master few straightforward tips about writing well in a business context.
Whether you’re worried that your emails come across as too friendly or too brisk, or whether you have to prepare a report or presentation, these tips should help you write in a professional, readable, way – that’s bound to impress your clients, your boss and your colleagues.
Be As Clear And As Succinct As Possible
If you’re not totally confident about your writing skills, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using complex words and impressive-sounding phrases that don’t really mean anything. You need to resist this temptation, and make your writing as simple, clear and concise as you can.
This is especially crucial if you’re writing a document for external purposes, particularly if it will be published on the web, where readers are typically rushed and distracted.
This sort of language is often a real turn-off to potential clients. I’ll bet that you’ve come across paragraphs like this on websites:
AskBio has proactively developed strategic relationships with the following corporate, foundation, and academic collaborators, which provides distinct capabilities to execute projects from discovery through patient clinical trials. (AskBio – Collaborators)
Does it inspire you to read on? Does it even make sense at a quick glance? Wouldn’t you prefer to read:
AskBio has strong relationships with these corporate, foundation, and academic collaborators. Our expert connections mean we can take your project every step of the way – from discovery to patient clinical trials. Yes, my example doesn’t hit all those key business words like “proactively”, “strategic” and “execute”. Frankly, unless you’re writing for a boss with a predilection for buzzword bingo, you don’t need them.
Avoid Jargon And Colloquialisms
As well as cutting out those buzzwords which don’t add anything, you’ll want to be careful about your use of industry jargon and colloquialisms. This is particularly important when you’re communicating with customers.
When checking your promotional materials, your website, or your emails to customers for the use of jargon and colloquialisms, look out for:
Industry acronyms that you don’t spell out (don’t assume that everyone reading your website will be familiar with every aspect of your industry).
Common acronyms that are strongly related to business or to technology. Not everyone will know that “FYI” means “for your information” or that “F2F” means “Face to face”.
Phrases specific to your culture (colloquialisms). For example, the American “step up to the plate” doesn’t resonate with me as we don’t play baseball here in the UK. In today’s international marketplace remember that your customers may not live in your country – and English may well not be their first language.
Industry jargon. If you’re unsure whether a word or phrase will be understood outside your industry, try to find an alternative. Be especially careful if you work in the finance or legal sectors: these seem prone to a lot of jargon!
Here’s an example, from a Webmaster Training course that requires “basic computer literacy”:
SEO – what SEO is, how it works, what the benefits are and why it is essential.
Someone who has “basic computer literacy” is a typical office worker who can use Word, Excel, a browser, and so on. Do you know what SEO stands for? Does everyone in your office? This is a prime example of where simply spelling out an acronym could make things a whole lot clearer:
SEO (search engine optimization) – what SEO is, how it works, what the benefits are and why it is essential.
Even if you’re not too sure what “search engine optimization” would involve, you’d at least be able to guess from the phrase that it’s not some obscure software package or arcane programming language.
Always Use A Spell Checker (And Ideally A Proof-Reader)
This might seem such an obvious tip that it’s not worth including. But do you really spell check everything? In most email and document programs, it only takes an extra couple of seconds to hit “spell check” – and it can prevent you from making embarrassing, silly or careless mistakes. Start getting into the habit today: it’ll soon become as automatic as putting on your seat belt when you get into your car.
We’ve all received emails riddled with typos or errors – and they don’t create a good impression. They can also pose a barrier to clear communication: if an important word or phrase is misspelled, then the recipient may struggle to understand what exactly you were trying to convey.
Since computer spell checkers won’t pick up on everything, run any important documents (especially promotional materials) past someone in the office who’s good with words. Don’t just ask them to look for typos – ask them to point out any places where the meaning was unclear, or where a sentence was unnecessarily convoluted.
Whether your business writing just involves emails, or whether you have to produce much more complex documents, what tips do you have for conveying a great impression and a clear message?