When business writers write clear, straightforward sentences, readers understand the writer’s messages more easily and are grateful for the easy-to-understand communication. Write so clearly that 100% of the readers understand 100% of your text 100% of the time. The average business reader comprehends business writing at an 8th to 10th grade level. Many readers are “scanners.” They breeze through text without reading it thoroughly. If they miss something, they just keep on going without fully understanding what they read. As a result, they end up with miscommunications and mistakes.

The most important part of learning to write clearly and simply is learning how to abandon the old practices of writing sentences that made business documents sound like legal contracts. Business writing today is a medium for conveying to the reader what you would say if the reader were standing with you.

This article explains how to clear, straightforward sentences.

1. Write Using Sentences You Would Speak

Write envisioning the reader sitting in front of you. You’re in a casual setting, such as having a cup of coffee with the reader. The reader says, “I don’t understand what you were trying to tell me in writing. In simple terms, what did you mean?” Write the words you would speak. Those are the clearest, most direct, most effective words you could use. Use those words in well-crafted sentences the reader can understand easily.

This type of writing differs from what you’ve probably been writing. It will actually feel different to you. You’re going into a different mental mode when you write with the reader in mind. See the reader sitting in front of you as you write. When you drift into just writing, stop yourself. Sit back for a moment and envision the reader again. Speak to the reader. Anticipate what the reader won’t understand and the questions this person will ask you as you go along. Write your answers as you would speak them in anticipation of them.

When you’ve finished writing your document, read it over looking for phrases you wouldn’t speak. Change them to match what you would say if you were speaking to the reader.

2. Write Active Voice Sentences

English verbs have two voices: active voice and passive voice. In active voice, the person acting is clear: “The manager wrote the report yesterday.” The person acting is the manager. In passive voice, the person acting isn’t specified: “The report was written yesterday.” It could have been written by the secretary, the manager, or George Clooney–we don’t know.

The sentence is still in passive voice if the text specifies the actor later in the sentence: “The report was written yesterday by the manager.”

Why use active voice? Passive voice makes the writing unclear by keeping the identity of the actor secret. At times the identity is obvious, but often it isn’t. Even if the reader has an idea of who the actor is, passive voice creates weak sentences that don’t communicate immediately and emphatically.

This report is made up entirely of passive voice sentences: 

The pipeline was inspected and was found to have cracks at three joints. The decision was made to replace the three joints and a contractor was engaged. After the work was completed, the leaks stopped.

Change the passive voice sentences to active voice unless you have a good reason to use passive voice:

The foreman inspected the pipeline and discovered cracks at three joints. The plant maintenance manager decided to replace the three joints and had the contracting department engage a contractor. After the contractor completed the work, the leaks stopped.

Now the reader knows who discovered the cracks, who decided to replace them, who engaged the contractor, and who did the work. When issues come up about the pipeline and what happened, the reader won’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to discover who was involved.

(Read more about using active voice sentences)

3. Use the Simplest Tense

Tense refers to the time of an action. Unless you have a really good reason to use another tense, always write in the present, future, and past tenses. Avoid conditional or perfect tenses.

AVOID: We had been aware that the argument could have been less confusing.

SIMPLER: We knew the argument was complicated.

4. Make sentences flow smoothly. Avoid inserting information that breaks up the sentence.

Imagine that a sentence is like listening to a story. You want to begin at the beginning, hear the events in sequence, and end when the story is finished. If the person telling you the story presents the story in the wrong order or inserts information in the middle that doesn’t relate to the story, you’ll become frustrated or annoyed.

View your sentences as a story. This sentence interrupts the story for information that just disturbs the flow:

I had agreed to look at the data again, at our May 15 meeting in Cincinnati with you the MIS people there, to see why it seems to indicate that the glass container division is losing money.

Always prefer to present the story in one, smooth statement. When you have other information you want to put in, place it at the end or beginning of the sentence, or make a separate sentence for it:

I had agreed to look at the data again, at our May 15 meeting in Cincinnati with you the MIS people there, to see why it seems to indicate that the glass container division is losing money.

Revise sentences that contain interrupting information. Locate places in which you can put the information so the sentence flows smoothly. The second sentence in this example has intruded information:

On behalf of the members of the Business Management Society, we submit this request to be included in the March BOTL deliberations. The Business Management Society is a non-profit association of business managers (currently having a membership of 20,000) providing information and training to managers in all business areas.

The writer should have found a way to eliminate the “(currently having a membership of 20,000).” This is the best solution:

On behalf of the 20,000 members of the Business Management Society, we submit this request to be included in the March BOTL deliberations. The Business Management Society is a non-profit association of business managers providing information and training to managers in all business areas.

Usually, you can find a way to place the information so it does not interrupt a sentence. At times, you will find that the information was not important enough to put in the sentence at all or that the information is sufficiently out of place to require its own sentence.

5. Write the most straightforward sentence you can.

If a sentence sounds awkward or odd to you, it is probably awkward and odd. Sometimes, business writers try to sound formal and “businessy,” by creating sentences they think are more businesslike, but they’re really just odd. Instead, use the same sentences you might use when you speak, with improvements that you are able to make in writing because you can reconsider and revise. This example uses awkward, odd sentences:

“Tardy” is when you are more than 15 minutes late for work. Punctuality being important to successful business functioning, the company prefers that you arrive at your designated work area on time, a virtue that will reward you in the long run.

The writer doesn’t need to understand all of the usage rules these sentences break. She just needs to use the same words she would use if she were explaining the policy to someone sitting in front of her:

Being “tardy” means you are more than 15 minutes late for work. Punctuality is important to successful business functioning, so the company prefers that you are at work on time. Being on time consistently will reward you in the long run.

6. Avoid complicated punctuation, especially dashes and ellipses.

Use only the simpler forms of punctuation: periods, commas, question marks, and parentheses. Business writers use ellipses (three periods in a row) and dashes to extend the sentences, making them unclear and complicated.

Ellipses Use ellipses only to indicate that words are omitted from quoted text: “For example, three words . . . are omitted here.” Put a space before and after each period. The only exception is that if the last period is just before the closing quotation mark, don’t put a space between the period and closing quotation mark.

Dashes Do not use dashes. Most people do not know how or where to use them. Instead, use commas when you break the sentence for an interjected thought and use parentheses when you include information that is notably not part of the sentence.

(Read more about using simple punctuation)

7. Don’t drop articles and other words as a shorthand method, even in lists.

Business writers sometimes go into a shorthand mode when they write lists. They have the feeling that list items should be short. However, that results in items that are more difficult to understand and doesn’t help readers, as in this example:

We made the following decisions at the meeting:

  1. Purchase crane and associated equipment.
  2. Sell old crane, Mitchell and Associates, agreed price.
  3. Purchase training option

Write in full sentences in all of your business writing. This is the same list with complete sentences:

We made the following decisions at the meeting:

  1. Purchase the crane and associated equipment.
  2. Sell the old crane to Mitchell and Associates at the agreed price.
  3. Purchase the training option with the new crane.

8. Make sentences flow smoothly. Avoid inserting information that breaks up the sentence.

Imagine that a sentence is like listening to a story. You want to begin at the beginning, hear the events in sequence, and end when the story is finished. If the person telling you the story presents the story in the wrong order or inserts information in the middle that doesn’t relate to the story, you’ll become frustrated or annoyed.

View your sentences as a story. This sentence interrupts the story for information that just disturbs the flow:

I had agreed to look at the data again, at our May 15 meeting in Cincinnati with you the MIS people there, to see why it seems to indicate that the glass container division is losing money.

Prefer to present the story in one, smooth statement. When you have other information you want to put in, place it at the end or beginning of the sentence, or make a separate sentence for it:

At our May 15 meeting in Cincinnati with you and the MIS people there, I had agreed to look at the data again to see why it seems to indicate that the glass container division is losing money.

Revise sentences that contain interrupting information. Locate places in which you can put the information so the sentence flows smoothly. The second sentence in this example has intruded information:

On behalf of the members of the Business Management Society, we submit this request to be included in the March BOTL deliberations. The Business Management Society is a non-profit association of business managers (currently having a membership of 20,000) providing information and training to managers in all business areas.

The writer should have found a way to eliminate the “(currently having a membership of 20,000).” This is the best solution:

On behalf of the 20,000 members of the Business Management Society, we submit this request to be included in the March BOTL deliberations. The Business Management Society is a non-profit association of business managers providing information and training to managers in all business areas.

Usually, you can find a way to place the information so it does not interrupt a sentence. At times, you will find that the information was not important enough to put in the sentence at all or that the information is sufficiently out of place to require its own sentence.