Despite their facility with language, professional editors and proofreaders sometimes find it hard to translate their editorial skills into their own business writing.
Many editors are brilliant writers in their own right; hardly surprising given the close read-across between the disciplines. Still, editors – being editors – are also prone to insecurity about their writing: even some of the best, in my experience.
The workshop I led at the #SfEP2018 annual conference at Lancaster University aimed to give editors some guidelines and tools to improve their business writing confidence: whether they’re writing emails, letters, CVs, reports, reviews, summaries, websites, blogs, articles, policies or other documents.
Impact and engagement are at the heart of all business writing: we want to avoid our reader ‘swiping left’ on our content, sending it forever to the virtual dustbin. We want our writing to have an impact, an effect, to get someone to do something or think in a particular way. It’s not necessarily to educate or entertain. We have an objective, an aim, in every piece we write.
That’s what distinguishes business writing from other forms of writing. And we are actively trying to avoid disengagement as well as achieve more positive impact.
Key principles of good business writing
Clarity breeds trust and understanding, the essential commodities of clear business writing. Be flawlessly clear in your meaning and logic, layout and headings. Use plenty of white space.
Brevity: People don’t have much time and often speed-read or only read the introduction. So keep it short, but not at the expense of clarity. If necessary sacrifice brevity. Try to achieve both.
Accuracy: Don’t make mistakes of fact or presentation. Stick rigidly to the essential rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar, and stick to the style required, even if it’s not explicitly written down.
Courtesy: Know your reader and use the right tone to achieve your desired impact. Don’t risk bad feeling by taking chances with courtesy. Be courteous at all times in business writing.
Consistency: Be flawlessly consistent when using styling that can legitimately vary, especially in a single piece. Develop an individual style sheet and use it. Check consistency rigorously when editing.
Motifs and tools
Story is central to good business writing, whether ‘news’ (what’s happened, why it’s interesting) or ‘narrative’ (beginning-middle-end, conflict-resolution); summary, message, hook, the core essence.
Structure is essential, from title to tagline to subheadings to paragraph/section length, white space and grammatical (sentence) structure. Physical layout reinforces or undermines cognitive structure.
Sound: The ear is a better judge of accuracy than the eye; reading content out loud to yourself will reinforce clarity, find syntax/word choice errors, word crowding and unclear or unintended meaning.
Style sheet: An individual style sheet, developed as an ongoing journal or aide-memoire, reinforces consistency between equally valid variables and helps eliminate recurring errors or usage problems.
Self-editing: A vital discipline for business writing, ensuring accuracy and refining message. Editors as writers have a head start over other writers because we know the tools and the form.
Business writing formats
The principles, motifs and tools outlined above can be applied to almost any piece of business writing regardless of format and length. Still, there is a huge variety of formats and types of business writing commonly in use; and different elements apply more to some formats than to others.
There are four categories of business writing format. Accuracy and clarity apply across the board.
- Shortform (e.g. instant messages, posts, tweets, miniblogs): brevity and story
- Email (+ e.g. letters, online messages): courtesy and structure
- Summary (e.g. blogs, exec summaries, short reports): story and structure
- Longform: (e.g. papers, manuals, longer reports): structure and consistency
I contend that there is no need to use prefabricated templates for particular business writing formats (expect in drafting legal contracts, where precedent is critical). Some formats and types of writing do have idiosyncrasies, yes. But the principles and motifs described above will achieve most of the impact and engagement you desire without you having to resort to writing-by-numbers.
Understanding your reader
Any piece of business writing is more effective if it is targeted at a real concrete person you can focus on when you’re writing, anticipating their response and your impact. Different publications and types of writing have different readers. You need to have an understanding of yours: why they are reading it, whether they want to read it or have to, and what they are getting out if it.
Personalise. Think of a real person, or make one up. The more specific you can be, the better. The target person will be in your mind, influence the way you write and shape your desired impact. And if you do actually know your reader, make it your business to know their hot-spots: the styles, vocabulary and phrasing they like or don’t like; and shape your content to those hot-spots.
Register, tone, style and voice
Register is external: the environment you are writing in and for: a formality gauge. There are usually held to be five language registers, or levels of formality, reflecting different environments.
- Frozen/static (e.g. statute)
- Formal/regulated (e.g. rules)
- Consultative/professional (e.g. policy)
- Casual/group (e.g. routine work interactions)
You can’t usually influence or vary the register you are writing in because it is external and usually set for you. In a business context the expected register is often the third one, consultative/professional.
This relates to how you feel, as the author, about the topic you are writing about (e.g. neutral, happy, sad, anxious, relaxed, angry) and how your feelings and attitudes reveal themselves in your vocabulary, sentence structure and punctuation. Usually in business writing it is unprofessional for tone to be anything other than neutral.
This is technical: the words and punctuation you use, the way you structure them into headings, sentences and paragraphs, and the approach your house or you individually take to styling variables.
Voice meanwhile, refers to your individual personality and how that gets reflected in your writing. It is as simple as that: whatever your personality, bring it explicitly into your writing. You can develop an individual style and voice even while maintaining neutral tone and professional register. In fact writing in your own voice is the single most important element to bring to any piece of business writing: it makes the content individual, authentic, interesting and more likely to create impact and engagement.
Correctness, rules, usage and style
Some readers are sticklers for what they see as ‘correctness’ in writing. That judgment is sometimes applied to style or usage as well as to rules. The distinction between rules, usage and style can cause confusion and stress, especially for people who are not confident about their writing, due to lack of experience, educational or professional background, or the fact that they are writing in a non-native language.
I contend that ‘correctness’ certainly applies to grammatical and punctuation rules but applies less to usage, and even less to style.
But people with high standards who care about punctuation and spelling are not necessarily sticklers. They are justified. Accuracy is expected in business English. Even if they aren’t part of the grammatical ruleset – i.e. are more changeable and less bound by ‘correctness’ than grammar is – poor spelling and punctuation risk disengagement and loss of impact. Hence I put strong emphasis on accuracy as one of the five principles. This is not the same as obeying fictive rules on usage.
This link to an article by John Danaher is a review of pages 27-56 of Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style, on the subject of classic style. This is an interesting concept for business writers who want to write prose that is both clear and interesting.
Classic style holds that writing should be viewed as a conversation between the writer and the reader, in which the writer explains some object of joint attention to the reader; providing a window onto the world. The writer sees something that the reader has not yet seen, and orients the reader’s gaze so she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation. Its motive is to be as ‘clear and simple as the truth’: which was actually the title of the original book on classic style.
Classic style avoids metadiscourse and minimises signposting. Vision is its guiding metaphor: it treats the reader as an intelligent equal who can see for themselves what the writer is pointing to. The writer and the reader are in co-operation, hold mutual respect, and see the same things from an equal standpoint. It avoids professional narcissism and goes straight to the point; and avoids self-conscious compulsive hedging and apologising language. Classic style avoids clichés and mixed metaphors. It minimises abstract vocabulary. And it emphasises active conversation rather than passive abstraction, but it is prepared to use the passive voice instead of active, if that supports the guiding principle of directing the reader’s attention to something in the world.
Business communication layering
It is increasingly common for organisations and individuals writing technical content who need to reach a non-technical audience – or a busy audience who may only have a short time-window – to use a ‘layering’ approach to the messaging. My version of this suggests conveying your message in at least four different ways, targeted at different audiences/time-windows:
- 8-word headline
- 20-word tagline
- 150-word plain language summary
- Main content: Variable in length but invariably with strong subheadings, white space, limits on number of words per sub-section (max 300) and per paragraph (max 150)
- Supporting content: Links, glossary, end-notes, references, appendices
This approach is so useful and can be applied across so many different business writing formats that it is almost a template, and quite acceptable as such. See this Prism-Clarity blog for further information.
15 hints and tips:
- Time: Spend at least as much time editing as you have taken writing.
- Layout: Be self-critical on structure, headings and layout: are they suitable for your content?
- Tone/style: Are they appropriate, and consistent with your house or individual style sheet?
- Vocabulary: Check for simplicity, unnecessary words, jargon/clichés, concrete vs abstract words.
- Story/message: Do they come through? Is your overall purpose or idea evident throughout?
- Accuracy: Check spelling. Punctuation, grammar, quotes, facts, citations and references.
- Consistency: Check your layout, usage, and treatment of legitimate variables.
- Readability: Check Flesch and other metrics, and use of transition words to maintain continuity.
- Originality: Is it obviously your own work and style and not plagiarised or re-hashed?
- Interest: Is it sufficiently engaging, with fluidity, pace, rhythm? Is it well-linked and cogent?
- Human Eyes: Don’t rely on automated checking processes e.g. spellchecking. Use human eyes.
- Fresh: Don’t edit when tired or straight after writing: give yourself freshness, time and distance.
- Sound: Use the sound test: read out loud to yourself to check sense.
- Paper: Don’t rely solely on screen: errors jump out more clearly on paper.
- Characters: Concentrate on every character in its own right not on the ‘word’ as a unit.
If necessary call in outside help, another pair of eyes: a friend, a colleague or even a professional.