Business writing must be so clear that 100 percent of the readers understand 100 percent of the message 100 percent of the time. Unfortunately, the average businessperson comprehends writing at a 10th grade level, meaning some readers comprehend at the 8th or 9th grade level. To make matters worse, most businesspeople scan email to get the general idea and respond without reading the email more carefully. Business writing that contains long, complex sentences and unnecessarily complex language will result in miscommunication that creates frustration and error. The content of your business writing is in two levels: a surface level and a deep level. The surface level comprises the words and sentences you use. The deep level contains the underlying meaning. The following two statements are different in the surface level, but identical in the deep level.
Version 1: Having been in receipt of the query in response to the April 4 correspondence, herewithin find the requisite exposition of aforementioned appraisement of the said holdings.
Version 2: We received your letter asking about our April 4 letter with the appraisal of your property. In this letter, I explain how we arrived at the appraisal value.
Writing simply and clearly doesn’t dumb down the writing. You can change the surface structure of your business writing so you convey the same deep message using shorter sentences and simple vocabulary with no loss of meaning. This article explains how you can write more clearly and simply so all of your readers can understand your message.
1. Write Short, Clear, Complete Sentences in Business Writing
Always use simple, straightforward sentences in business writing. Avoid complex sentences and constructions.
Some business writers think that using simple language is “dumbing down” the business writing to the lowest level and that the explanations lose something. To them, using complex words and sentence structures seems to make the writing look more intelligent, businesslike, or professional. Nothing could be further from the truth. The information readers need to accomplish business objectives can be written fully and clearly using simple, straightforward, direct language. Writing clearly and simply is particularly important in business emails because the reader must act correctly and successfully based on the content. (Read more about clear sentences)
✓ Don’t Write in Shorthand
Don’t drop articles and the other glue words that hold sentences together thinking that the business document will be quicker to write and the reader will pick up on the missing words. Dropping words in business writing makes the writing more difficult to read and saves very little time.
Write in complete sentences and include all of the smaller glue words, especially articles (a, an, and the).
Dropped words: Request you locate employee information in database.
Full sentence: Please locate this employee’s information in the company database.
✓Write Complete Sentences
Some business writers write business emails that sound like they are text messaging or writing as thoughts pop into their minds. This is an example:
Business writing should contain the same complete sentences you would use in a letter. The few seconds it takes to do that may save the reader from having to spend a few minutes trying to figure out what you mean and may save you from receiving a business email asking what you meant to convey. Instead of the clipped text-message business writing, write like this:
✓Put Only One or Two Ideas in Most Sentences
Generally, limit the amount of information you include per sentence to one or two ideas, with an occasional sentence containing three and even four ideas. Break up longer sentences in your business writing into smaller thoughts:
Too long: The best thing to do in this situation is to remember not to input more data, which can cause the data already entered to be lost and can result in your having to re-enter the data, and possibly you may need to re-enter the data from the previous entries that could have been corrupted.
Better: The best thing to do in this situation is to stop inputting data. If you input more data, you may lose the data you have already entered. That may result in your having to re-enter the data you just entered and, possibly, the data from the previous entries that could have been corrupted.
✓Use Short, Simple Sentence Constructions
Keep subject, verb, and object together in business writing. Avoid putting interrupting words in the middle of a sentence. If you have a comment to insert, put it at the beginning or end of the sentence, or rewrite the sentence so the comment doesn’t interrupt the meaning.
Interrupted: A corporation, because of its permanent legal status, generally has more credibility with potential clients.
Better: Because of its permanent legal status, a corporation generally has more credibility with potential clients.
Interrupted: ABC Corporation has struggled, over the course of 2015, to see its strong operating results reflected in its share performance.
Better: During 2015, ABC Corporation has struggled to see its strong operating results reflected in its share performance.
✓Avoid Mixed Grammatical Constructions in Your Business Writing
Mixed: The hiring process is long and tedious is why you should apply now.
Better: The hiring process is long and tedious, so you should apply now.
When possible, begin sentences with the subject.
Subject buried: There is no law that specifically addresses this question.
Better: No law specifically addresses this question.
✓Use Active Voice
Active voice shows the subject doing something rather than something being done to the subject. Using the passive voice slows down your writing and makes it less forceful.
Passive voice: New regulations have been proposed by committee members.
Active voice: Committee members proposed new regulations.
✓Use the Simplest Tense in Business Writing
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 in business writing.
Avoid: We had been aware that the argument could have been less confusing.
Simpler: We knew the argument was complicated.
2. Use Simple Vocabulary
Many business writers fall into using a jargon language in their business writing, with vocabulary such as “as per your request,” “thanking you in advance,” and “commensurate with our aforementioned agreement.” Don’t do that. Instead, use the same plain, simple words you would use if you were speaking.
Delete words that don’t add meaning but do give the business writing a distant, overly formal feel, such as “It has come to my attention” and “to that end.” Your goal is to communicate clearly; simple vocabulary will help you achieve your goal.
Address readers directly using “you” in business writing. Even when you’re writing an e-mail to a number of people, they’re reading it as individuals. Use “you” instead of “all employees” or “everyone.” (Read more about clear vocabulary)
3. Use Simple Punctuation in Business Writing
Don’t use dashes, semicolons, ellipses (dots), and other punctuation that extends sentences and makes the relationships among words unclear. Use parentheses sparingly in business writing.
Use such punctuation in technical, academic, and more formal types of writing that can be unclear and complex, but business writing must be clear and straightforward. When you find yourself wanting to use complex punctuation in business writing, start a new sentence instead.
Complicated punctuation: Place the order number in the top blank–making sure to include the ED at the beginning; including date ordered and method of payment–check or credit card–unless payment will be made at time of delivery.
Simplified punctuation: Place the order number in the top blank. Make sure to include the ED at the beginning. Include the date ordered and method of payment (check or credit card). Do not put anything for the method of payment if you will pay at the time of delivery.
Don’t use a series of exclamation points or question marks for emphasis in your writing. Business writing has no nonverbal signals, so the reader can’t see you smiling or hear the calm tone of your voice as you say the words. Instead, a reader may easily feel you are angry or frustrated. Your emphatic exclamation points or question marks in business email may sound to the reader like lecturing, whining, or shouting. You have no control over the reader’s reactions when you aren’t there speaking the words.
Write clear, simple, short sentences in your business writing. If you are writing simple sentences with only one or two ideas per sentence, you will not need complex punctuation. Complex punctuation often results from trying to stack disorganized thoughts into sentences that are too long to begin with. Long sentences only slow down the reader as the reader organizes the thoughts in his or her mind; the writer should have done the organizing. Always remember that clarity is your main goal in business writing.
4. Avoid Using Pronouns
Pronouns are words that stand for nouns, such as “he,” “she,” “them,” and “they.” They are useful because some sentences sound odd when the noun is repeated, as in “We met with Jim at Jim’s house.” We would write, “We met with Jim at his house.” However, always use the noun in business writing if the sentence doesn’t require the pronoun for clarity or the flow of the sentence.
First write your sentence without a pronoun. If the sentence sounds really odd because you’ve used the noun recently, use the pronoun. Make sure the writer will have no difficulty understanding which noun the pronoun is referring to. If you have been using two nouns the pronoun might refer to, use the noun. For example, instead of “Simon and Arny dropped off the package before he left on the trip,” you must write “Simon and Arny dropped off the package before Arny left on the trip.”
6. Use Key Words Consistently in Business Writing
Words represent concepts. Once you open a concept using a word in your business writing, you must not change the word in because the reader may assume that a new word means a new concept. That will create confusion. For example, this is the opening sentence for a block of information:
These are the key words: training sessions, several remote sites, bringing people in from the field, and home office.
You learned in high school English that you should avoid repeating words to make the writing sound good. That is true with words that carry no essential meaning. However, in business writing, don’t use alternative words for the key words. Use them over and over again without changing them. In business writing, your objective is to communicate clearly, not write the great American novel.
In the example sentence above, “remote sites” are key words. See the confusion that results when you change the term in the next sentences:
Holding training sessions in several remote sites would be better than bringing people in from the field to the home office. A distance learning location would have facilities that could enhance the training. One way to ensure that our training is consistent is to have regional training locations with the same instructors going from region to region to do the training.
The reader is left wondering whether “remote sites,” “distance learning location,” and “regional training locations” are the same thing. Is the writer introducing two or three different options? Each seems to be opening a new concept. Once the writer settled on “remote sites,” she should have locked in that term, as in this example:
✓Key words in the statement of contents of your business writing
The primary key words are in the statement of contents at the beginning of the e‑mail.
Statement of contents: “A focus on telemarketing would provide four benefits to our company: . . . .”
Key words: “telemarketing,” “benefits”
Do not change those words. Use them consistently throughout your business document. Don’t change them to “phone services,” “marketing by phone,” “advantages,” “features,” or any other synonym.
✓Main point key words in business writing
The main points have their own sets of key words in business writing. In the example that follows, the four main points are in the statement of contents after the colon:
A focus on telemarketing would provide four benefits to our company: a decrease in direct mail costs, more openings to cross-sell to customers, opportunities to gather market research data, and promotion of the image of the personal touch we say we provide.
These are the key words:
- decrease in direct mail costs
- more openings to cross-sell to customers
- opportunities to gather market research data
- promotion of the image of the personal touch we say we provide
✓Question or guideline key words in business writing
If you are answering questions contained in a business document such as a request for a proposal, audit guidelines, or other instructions for your responses, the words in the questions or guidelines should become key words. Usually, begin your response by repeating the question or guideline. If you do not repeat the entire question or guideline, repeat as much of the question or guideline as necessary. In any event, always use the requester’s words in your responses. They become the key words.
The question in the request was, “How many hours were spent completing the project design?” In the following response, the writer included the question, verbatim, and used the key words in the response:
“Question 4: How many hours were spent completing the project design?
“Answer: We spent 74 hours completing the project design.”
✓Choose key words in business writing that are meaningful to the reader.
Use the reader’s words in business writing. Avoid changing them to other words, even if you feel the other words are better somehow.
✓Use key words to identify problems in unity and clarity.
The key words unify and clarify your business writing. They unify your writing by letting the reader know how the information fits together. Each time you repeat a key term, the reader is able to fit the contents into the overall picture that has the key term as its focus. That clarifies business writing because the reader is able to fit the pieces of your puzzle together as you present them.
You can use the key words to identify problems in unity and clarity. If the key words don’t appear consistently throughout the document, that is a signal that the writing is not unified, making it unclear.
Check the opening sentences and the closing sentences of sections and paragraphs in your business writing. Normally, you should see the key words in both sentences or in the sentences adjoining them. If you don’t see the key words, look at the writing to see whether the focus changed.