Whether you're drafting staff memos, blog posts, performance reviews, text messages or product descriptions, you can't afford to write copy that leaves readers confused or bored.
Good writing helps you give clear instructions to employees. It woos customers. It even convinces your banker. In other words, your job depends on it.
After coaching hundreds of journalists and business owners, I've identified 10 common traps in business writing. Consult my handy 10-point checklist before sharing your writing:
1. Use strong verbs.
Weak verbs make writing boring. Look for a weak verb followed by a preposition. Often you can remove both and replace them with a strong verb.
Weak: Look up directions in the product manual.
Strong: Consult the product manual for directions.
2. Avoid pretentious or confusing words.
Many pretentious words have three or more syllables.
For a good example, go to the Gobbledygook generator and click on "Generate some gobbledygook." You'll see confusing sentences with meaningless words, empty phrases and buzzwords like this:
"Our upgraded model now offers parallel reciprocal resources."
Use the handy tool on the right side of the page to find shorter alternative words.
3. Don't overuse the verb "to be."
Look for the forms of the verb "to be" (is, was and were), especially near the beginning of sentences. Try to replace each one with a stronger verb, even if you must rewrite the sentence.
Weak: The delivery man is frightened by the noises he hears in the dark factory.
Strong: In the dark factory, the delivery man hears noises that frighten him.
4. Steer clear of using many words ending in -ly.
Avoid cluttering text with "ly" adverbs. Sometimes adverbs are used to modify weak verbs. Remove them and insert stronger verbs.
Weak: I'm hopefully going to have unused sick days.
Strong: I hope I have unused sick days.
5. Shun trite business jargon.
Avoid using clichés in business writing.
Here are some of them: at the end of the day, throwing (anyone) under the bus, drinking the Kool-Aid, paradigm shift, pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box.
6. Remove speed bumps.
Many writers jam together two words with an awkward slash to convey "or." These cumbersome speed bumps can slow down readers.
Other annoyances are Latin abbreviations like "i.e.," which is short for "id est" and means "that is," according to Merriam-Webster.
Then there's "e.g.", which is short for "exempli gratia" and means "for example."
Instead of sprinkling in these confusing abbreviations, which many people use incorrectly, just write out "in other words" or "for example."
7. Cut unnecessary words.
Edit text to remove unwarranted wordiness. Pretend you can earn a $1 for every word you remove. How much money can you make?
Change "due to the fact that" to "since."
Substitute "fast" for "on a timely basis."
Change "at the present time" to "now."
8. Write in the active voice not the passive voice.
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed by the verb. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. Using the active voice leads to crisper, livelier writing.
Active voice: The cleaning crew throws scrap paper into the recycling bins.
Passive voice: Scrap paper is thrown into the recycling bins by the cleaning crew.
9. Provide sufficient details to explain points.
Don't write in vague terms.
Weak: It took us a long time to read the thick proposal.
Strong: We spent two hours reading the 25-page proposal.
10. Trim down big blocks of uninviting type.
For some readers, fat paragraphs convey an unpleasant message: "This is going to be difficult to read."
Slice and dice large paragraphs into shorter ones.
Break up copy with subheads that tell readers how the piece is organized.
Consider creating numbered or bulleted lists that are easy to read.
A free tool, The Hemingway App, can help you improve your writing. The app highlights problems in five colors, with green signifying the passive voice and red highlighting dense, complicated sentences. The app also grades copy for readability, indicating the lowest education level needed to understand a passage of text. Bold, clear writing has a grade level below 10. The Hemingway App is a fun tool that's the best substitute for a human editor.