To become a better business writer it’s important to practice and learn from mistakes.
Several years ago I co-wrote and published an on-line book. Entitled ‘Dexter Bentley: My first million’ the story follows the entrepreneurial journey of a young man whose academic failures prove to be the catalyst for his business success…
The first draft was completed in months. But it was only when I asked a literary specialist and friend (David Harris) to review my efforts that I discovered the hard work had only just begun.
Working diligently through each page, Dave repeatedly demonstrated that by following key writing principles I could improve the impact of the text and the whole story.
The experience taught me much about the power of the written word. Importantly, the principles I acquired helped me to become a better business writer.
Principles to become a better business writer
1. Search and strip
Time is precious. Readers (be they customers, suppliers and/or staff) are increasingly impatient and want you (the writer) to get to the point quickly.
Much like a chef reduces a sauce to create a richer flavour, the writer should strive to remove all unnecessary words that add nothing to or mask the message.
In his superb book ‘Perfect Pitch’ Jon Steel uses Picasso’s love of sculpture to demonstrate the importance of only saying what needs to be said. Picasso, Steel tells us, declares to a studio visitor that he will “Sculpt a lion from a piece of rock”. When asked how, Picasso replies “I will remove every bit of stone that is not lion.” For more on this point, read Paul Graham’s ‘Writing Briefly’.
By applying this principle, written materials perform better. The trick is to ‘write for the reader’ so people receive relevant information quickly and in a manner that is easy to digest and act upon.
Hitchhiking provides an excellent example of this principle. The following sign communicates a message to the passing driver.
The second sign demonstrates how the same message can be conveyed with greater clarity and impact.
2. Simple and clear
Simplifying the message through removal of unnecessary text is crucial. But there are other ways to keep writing simple.
Unlike academic essays, there is no need to use flowery language or complex terms. Short, punchy sentences help to concentrate the mind. The reader’s eye is attracted to bulleted lists. Lengthy paragraphs suggest hard work.
Headlines and sub-headlines also break up the text. It is then easier for the reader to scan and digest what is important to them. Easy-to-read fonts (point 11 and above) such as Ariel are also kinder on the eye.
3. Sentence structure and order
It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing for yourself. And when the reader picks up on this (consciously and/or subconsciously) your work has less influence and impact.
For example, if you regularly start sentences with the words ‘I’ or ‘We’ then the reader senses the communication is about you rather than them. Far better to turn sentences around so they start with words like ‘You’ or ‘Your’. By doing this, the reader is made to feel important and involved. Taking this further, the famous fell-walker and author, Alfred Wainwright, was a master of avoiding the ‘I’ word altogether. Millions of readers have been drawn into his world because the content of his books contain carefully crafted words that communicate his experience of the outdoors, rather than of himself.
Words at the end of a sentence are also well remembered. Wherever possible, say something here that resonates with the reader. You’ll have probably guessed that the least important information goes to the middle of the sentence. This is called the 1.3.2 rule and here is an example of rewriting a sentence so that it has greatest impact on the reader:
“We thought you would like to know about our groundbreaking product that we have launched this week…”
Is better presented as…
“You’ll be pleased to hear that this week we launched our latest groundbreaking product…”
4. Unpacking information
Another key issue is the manner in which a written message is conveyed to the reader. People who write about their own products or services often lose their focus. So always remember to ask yourself, what is the objective of the piece you are writing and what do you want people to do as a result?
If you’re creating marketing materials it’s critical to make the benefits of what you are offering very clear. For people to be persuaded by your writing they have to grasp quickly what is in it for them.
On that note, it’s important not to confuse features with benefits. Features simply highlight aspects of a product or service. Benefits communicate what a service or product does for the person reading the information.
5. Keep it personal
Finally, to become a better business writer, imagine the person reading your work.
By writing for the individual (rather than a mass market) the text is able to convey greater empathy and understanding. Writing convincingly may require market research, but if you do your background work properly you are more likely to be able to write with authority and confidence.
A good example of personal writing that fully resonates with the reader is the postcard. The text which is typically written for one person is succinct, unstuffy and personal; most importantly perhaps, the reader enjoys receiving the information.
Key Learning Points: People in business who are able to communicate effectively using the written word are more able to persuade and influence others. Practice is the route to success. Use the tips presented in this post to become a better business writer.