Business Writing: How To Write With Impact in English
This is an updated version of a post I published in October 2015.
As a business professional you probably spend a large chunk of your working day and week writing – emails, proposals, memos and so on.
The time you take writing depends very much on the message you’re trying to communicate in terms of its importance and the response you’re expecting from your reader.
Some emails may take you 5 minutes, while a sales proposal may take you 30 – 45 minutes. All this in your native language where you feel at your most comfortable, confident and articulate.
That all changes when it comes to writing in English, though. Instead of focusing on your message and structure, you spend an excruciatingly long time wondering which tenses to use or rummaging through your brain for the appropriate ‘sophisticated’ word to impress your reader. In the end, feeling exhausted and deflated you press the send button and hope for the best.
It’s all very unsatisfactory and you ask yourself if you’ll ever become a skilled, confident business writer in English.
According to Bryan Garner, author of the HBR Guide To Better Business Writing, “effective writing is not a gift you’re born with. It’s a skill you can cultivate.” (Source)
This statement applies to both proficient speakers of English and learners of English.
Writing is a skill and like all skills, it can be perfected through practice. The more you write, the better you’ll become. It’s as simple as that.
Before you get writing though, read on.
What my clients want
When it come to writing skills, most of my clients want to:
- write like a native speaker (whatever that means)
- have more vocabulary
- use more complex sentences
- use more sophisticated language
- take less time writing
Does this look familiar to you? Is this what you want?
What my clients need
What they actually need is to:
- be clear about why they are writing. What is their objective?
- think about their reader
- have a clear structure with a clear start and finish
- have better cohesion of thought
- use plain, uncomplicated English
- keep it short and simple (KISS)
As a writer, you need to ask yourself 5 basic questions* before you put pen to paper.
- Who are you writing to? Internal or external? colleague, superior, client, supplier? *Always consider your reader*
- Why are you writing? A phone call is too long; you’re writing to multiple recipients; the message needs to be documented; you’re looking to establish your authority.
- What exactly is the message you want to communicate? What outcome are you looking for? Inform, persuade, remind, complain?
- How much time can you spend on this? 2 minutes, 1 hour, half a day?
- Do you have the relevant information/knowledge to write?
When you have answered the above questions, the next stage is to plan the information.
Here are some planning techniques* you could use:
- Establish the objective
- Brainstorm the content
- Select and reject
- Prepare an outline with the main points
- Expand on the details
- Keep to the plan
Remember that writing needs to flow. Your reader needs to follow the internal structure of your document and the connections between your ideas. Therefore, it’s important to have a clear structure in your writing.
Structure: Sentences and Paragraphs
- Keep your sentences short – shorter sentences mean fewer mistakes
- Shorter doesn’t mean simple sentences
- Use a mixture of simple, compound and complex sentences to give variety to your writing
- Use chronological (first, second, finally, then) and logical linkers (as a result, in contrast, in addition) to make your writing smooth
- Use replacement words: “Sales were well above target. In Eastern Europe, they reached 3 million euros and this represents a 10% rise on last year”*
Paragraphs are essential for longer emails and documents. Each paragraph shouldn’t be more than 2-6 sentences and it should always start with a topic sentence. Use headings and bullet points to make your writing visually clear.
Getting the style right
Formal, standard or informal?
Which style will depend on who your reader is. Once you’ve chosen the appropriate style, it will dictate how you write.
Longer words, impersonal and indirect, more use of the passive voice, perfect grammar and punctuation are expected.
Direct and shorter phrases, less formal vocabulary, personal and direct in style, proficient language is expected
Conversational expressions, everyday words, less structure, mistakes are acceptable
Using positive words like: activity, agreed, evolving, helpful, manageable, productive, solve together, team are more likely to get the results you want than negative words such as: busy, crisis, difficult, impossible, incompetent, stupid, waste of time*
“Less is more”
Use short words where possible. Instead of these: approximately, attempt, at this point in time, currently, for the reason that try these: about, try, now, now, because.*
My vocabulary is limited
That’s not a problem.
- Use words you know. Plain, uncomplicated English is best.
- Use vocabulary your reader knows. Avoid jargon unless it is expected.
- Simplify and adapt your vocabulary if your reader doesn’t share your professional background.
The Writing Process
Writing the first draft
You will notice from this last image that grammar, spelling and punctuation are the last items you address before editing the entire document and pushing the send button.
The Editing Process
When it comes to editing your document, I’d recommend using Grammarly’s Grammar Checker.
It will make the editing process less painful and less time-consuming. It will also give you the peace of mind that your written document is correct.
Affiliate Disclaimer: The above link to Grammarly is an affiliate link. If you click on it and sign up for the Grammar Checker, I receive a small fee. This pays for my espresso which I need to get my creative juices flowing! Clicking on the link is free. I only support services that I’ve tested out myself.
Feeling inspired? Time to get writing, then.
If an emergency toolbox to help you as you write could be a life-saver, check out my e-book and audiobook, Business English Secrets. You’ll get plenty of tips and expressions to ease the writing process.
Ciao for now
PS: If you found this post helpful and feel that your friends and colleagues would benefit, please share it with them.
*Business Minimax- English for Business Writing, Bob Dignen and Jon Dyson (2009) York Associates
English for Business, Nick Brieger (2011) Collins