To be a better business writer it’s important to practice and learn from mistakes.
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 business success…
The first draft was completed in months. But when I asked a literary specialist and friend (David Harris) to review my efforts, I discovered the hard work had only begun.
Working diligently through each page, Dave repeatedly demonstrated that 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.
Use Principles to become a better business writer
1. Search and strip
Time is precious. Readers (be they customers, colleagues or just curious) are increasingly impatient and like (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 unnecessary words that add nothing 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 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 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 for 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 break up the text. It’s then easier for the reader to scan and digest what is important. Easy-to-read fonts (point 11 and above) such as Ariel are also kinder on the eye.
3. Sentence structure and order
Writing for yourself is a popular trap. And when the reader picks up on this (consciously and/or subconsciously) your work has less influence and impact.
For example, whilst the start of a sentence grabs most attention, if you regularly start with words like ‘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. The subject of his books contain carefully crafted words that communicate his outdoor experiences; Mr Wainwright was wise to avoid being the focus. Yet he is world renowned.
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. Unpack 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, 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, don’t 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 better 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. For more advanced writing techniques, have a look at ‘Write Wonderful Words’.