6 Helpful Hints for Writing Sterling Business Prose
Chances are you spend much of your day writing, even if you don’t realize it. Writing is required every time you send an email, develop a business plan or create a new product pitch. It’s an integral part of everyday business.
Just as clients, customers and colleagues evaluate you on your poise and presence, they also make judgments based on the professionalism and quality of your writing. The best kind of writing, for everything from books to thank-you notes, is clean, clear and concise.
Here are six tips to help you improve your writing for business purposes:
1. Limit preposition use.
A preposition is a word that expresses a relationship to another word. Commonly used prepositions include about, across, at, before, but, from, in, of, on, over, to, up and with. While using prepositions is sometimes appropriate, their overuse can cause writing to be too wordy and indirect. For example, “Let’s have a meeting about the budget on Wednesday” would be better written as “Let’s meet Wednesday to discuss the budget.”
One of the best examples of wordiness is the word “very.” It fills space but doesn’t contribute to a reader’s experience or understanding. There is little difference between “The plate is hot” and “The plate is very hot.” Instead of sprinkling in extra adjectives or adverbs, take full advantage of the 470,000 words in the English language to find the right one.
Use the word "delicious" instead of “very tasty” and "famished" instead of “very hungry.” Avoid sentences in which a preposition unnecessarily follows a verb such as “Where are you at?” In this case, “Where are you?” conveys the same question.
3. Use the active voice.
Deploy the active voice to deliver stronger writing. The best way to distinguish the active voice from the passive voice is to consider whether the subject of the sentence is doing something or being acted upon. With the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the party responsible for the action, as in this example: “Sarah approved the business plan.” The same sentence constructed in the passive voice could be expressed as “The business plan was approved by Sarah.”
4. Don’t use big words just to impress others.
It’s admirable to have a broad vocabulary and fun to occasionally use a new grand term from, say, the word-a-day calendar, but doing so could cause confusion. If someone doesn’t understand the meaning of a word, then you’ve fallen short of the goal of offering the best in communication.
Ernest Hemingway summed it up best when he said, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
5. Use punctuation correctly.
You undoubtedly know the basics about punctuation marks like periods, commas and question marks. It gets trickier, though, when you move on to more nuanced punctuation.
Semicolons, colons and dashes are used to organize multiple thoughts into one sentence.
Exclamation points should be used sparingly. They convey strong emotion in the case of surprise or disbelief. When overused, exclamation points lose their meaning and your writing is diluted. Each of these punctuation marks should be used only when a sentence calls for it.
6. Keep it brief.
Learn to write concisely and say only what’s necessary. It’s more valuable to effectively communicate the most important points than to include lengthy amounts of detail. Emails should be kept short and succinct. If you want a quick response, make it easy for a recipient to reply immediately.
Finally, always double-check your writing before sending it to a client, customer or colleague. It’s worth a few extra minutes to ensure your message is free of typos, grammatical errors and misused words.