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Effective Business Writing: Use appropriate writing style

The BEHQ Guide to Business Writing describes 15 basic areas you must work at to write clearly and effectively.

In essence, the BEHQ Guide explains in plain English methods and techniques to:

  1. understand your focus,
  2. plan properly,
  3. structure your document,
  4. use appropriate writing style, and
  5. know how to self-edit.

Dale Carnegie, author of one of my favorite books, How to Win Friends and Influence People, said:

“There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it.”

In today’s knowledge economy, Carnegie’s ideas relate to business writing as well. What you write and how you write it are critically important for your business success.

So let’s take a closer look at the foundation of good writing: clarity, tone, and style.

Clarity

Hard writing makes easy reading.
So what is the secret to communicating clearly and concisely in business writing? George Orwell, author of the excellent novels Animal Farm and 1984, knew a few things about writing effectively. He proposed six simple rules for good writing:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This is a difficult task even for native English speakers, but don’t get discouraged. According to Kenneth Davis, author of Business Writing and Communication, “writing is a process that can be managed like any other business process.”

Let’s dig deeper into Orwell’s classic advice.

# 1: Many native English speakers do not know what is a “figure of speech” – expressions used in a non-literal way to create a special effect.

The most common figures of speech are simile’s and metaphor’s. A simile compares two things using “like” or “as.” Example: “It is as hot as hell.” (There no way it can be as hot as hell, because there is no scientific consensus on the temperature of the place.)

A metaphor makes a comparison, but doesn’t use “like” or “as.” Example: “Life is a roller coaster.” (As fun as it may be, life is not really a roller coaster, because that doesn’t make any sense.)

Beware: using common similes and metaphors too often makes for dull writing. It’s nice to be creative, and it certainly adds spice to your writing, but only if you have the skill to pull it off. One of the worst things is mixing metaphors. As William Strunk says in The Elements of Style: “don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.”

(Note from Craig: I absolutely love hyperbole in conversation and writing, but if you are trying to be taken seriously, never use hyperbole in professional business writing. Hyperbole (pronounced: High-Per-Bowl-Ee) is over exaggeration. A great example would be, “The line for the bathroom was so long it took a million years to get in.” Obviously, it did not take a million years, because that is a long time.)

# 2: Keep it simple by using plain English. Never speak over the head of your readers by showing off “ten-dollar” words.

 

Avoid

Use

advise say / tell
cognizant of know
commence begin
facilitate help
impact on affect
per diem per day
permit let
remunerate pay
subsequent to after
utilize use

 

# 3: Many native speakers of English make the mistake of using too many unnecessary words. Replace wordy expressions with one or two words when possible.

Avoid

Use

at this time now
despite the fact that although
do an analysis of analyze
due to the fact that because
he is a man who he
in-depth study study
in a situation in which when
make a recommendation recommend
it is necessary that must, should
schedule a meeting meet
this is a subject that this subject
with the exception except

[alert]Want more words? Check out other wordy expressions [/alert]

# 4: Many native English speakers also do not know the difference between the use of passive and active voices. Good writing requires the use of strong, precise verbs in the active voice.  The subject acts on the verb. The passive voice, however, has its place.

Here is an example: The CEO believes that the company should launch a new marketing strategy.

In the passive voice, the action is emphasized rather than the actor: It is believed by the CEO that a new marketing strategy should be launched.

You can also use the passive to be diplomatic about not identifying the actor: The letter was badly written. The passive voice also creates an authoritative tone: Jim’s document should be read by tomorrow.

# 5: You have to fit your language to the audience you are addressing. But you’ll never go wrong by using standard English to communicate your message.

The editors at Business Writing Clear and Simple recommend that you eliminate buzzwords, avoid technical language, and stay away from bureaucratic jargon.

Avoid

Use

brick and mortar business physical business
core competency competence / ability
downsize dismiss or lay off
functionality effectiveness / success
meaningful actual / real
modality method
paradigm model
scope out take an in-depth look
skill set skills
streamline simplify

Tone

“We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Tone is a reflection of your attitude and personality. It also shows how you feel about the reader. It starts with keeping in mind your focus in writing: why you are writing, who you are writing to, what your readers know and expect, and how you want to achieve your purpose.

Here are some of my top tips for creating a courteous, warm, professional appearance in my writing.

  • I am always positive and respectful, never negative or condescending – or almost never.  You want to avoid writing when you are angry or upset about something; you’ll regret it later as I done a few times.
  • I don’t aim to be “Mr. Nice” guy. I prefer to be a straight shooter – honest and forthright in my message.
  • I appear confident because I research and plan well any writing I do. This makes my writing more forceful and persuasive. It’s better though to be humble than overconfident.
  • I structure my writing by following the process I describe in Effective Business Writing: Structure your document
  • I avoid sexist or discriminatory language. For example, when writing a business letter, when I don’t know the reader’s gender, I’ll use “To whom it may concern,” or “Dear Sir / Madam.”
  • I’ll use contractions – I’ll, We’d – when appropriate. It makes the writing sound warmer and conversational.
  • When I have something negative to say, I avoid using disagreeable language. I won’t stress what was done poorly but rather what can be done better.
  • I’ll reread my documents several times to see if I’ve gotten it right. This is part of the self-editing [

Style

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”  – Mark Twain

Everything I have said previously about clarity, conciseness and tone gives your writing its distinctive voice or style.

I recommend the classic work on style by Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. Find out about the elementary rules of usage, basic principles of composition, matters of form, commonly misused words and expressions and a 21-point approach to style.

Here are a few tips to remember about style in business letter writing:

  • Use clear language – short, simple sentences that don’t confuse readers or waste their time. Twenty-five words or more for a sentence is too long.
  • Write from the point of view of your company. Show your strengths and those of your company.
  • State your purpose in the first sentence.
  • Keep your reader’s needs and interests in mind.
  • Use lists to structure and simplify the presentation of information. Use parallel structure when writing lists as I have done here beginning each point with the imperative: use, write, state, keep, use.
  • End your letter with a “call to action.” such as “When can we meet to discuss your questions about the project?”

 

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Catherine Durocher et Gaëlle Descary September 13, 2012, 1:59 pm

    Using a lot of exemples it’s makes the article more easyer to understand!

    • Craig September 14, 2012, 6:24 am

      Thank you Catherine. We will work hard to include many more examples in future articles.

  • Buntu September 13, 2012, 2:06 pm

    I actually didn’t know that it was better to not use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which i am use to see in many articles. I thought it was better to be more poetic and sophisticated so the reader thinks we are more informed and at ease with the subject. So thanks to you for that info!!!

  • Craig September 14, 2012, 6:34 am

    Hi Buntu,

    That is a great comment. But let’s try to understand “WHY” we think metaphor and simile are important.

    In your comment, you mentioned “to be more poetic and sophisticated SO THE READER THINKS WE ARE MORE INFORMED …”

    I made that part capital letters because it points out the reason simile is used by writers but not loved by readers. The point of giving information (writing, teaching) is to give someone else information that she does not currently have. The idea is to give information to a reader. When we try to convince the reader that WE are smart and that WE are important, you force the reader to think about you, instead of the information necessary.

    That’s why we should not be poetic when trying to convey information. Readers don’t care about writers; readers care about information and stories. Our job as a writer is to give that information as clearly and easily as possible.

    When a master creates his work, it looks simple. The best authors make you feel as if you aren’t even reading, but instead listening to the story in your mind.

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