The Ultimate Guide to Learning Writing: Business Writing
Closing the Deal: Effective Business Writing
We’ve all been there. It’s 8AM Monday morning and you’re groaning at your manager’s internal memo; it sounds like they’re chastising the marketing team again. Or you’ve received another 20-line long paragraph email from your manager...and you mark it as unread because after one read, you’re not sure what to tackle first. Ineffective business writing lacks etiquette, style, and appropriate formatting, and can result in a loss of productivity, morale, and even profits (rejected proposals, for example).
In today’s digital age full of communication via chat, text, email, and memo, refining your writing skills and business communication is critical. Ensuring your audience understands your message as intended, and moreover, acts upon your request as intended seems simple - however, poor communication yields undesired results at every corner.
Clear writing demonstrates clear thinking. Colleagues, employees, and employers interact as gears in an organization; refining your business writing skills allows your team to coast. As a freelancer or entrepreneur, your great idea risks sinking into the idea graveyard without the finesse of writing an effective proposal.
In this guide, we provide you with:
- General business writing tips to ensure professional writing for any business document
- Specific tips for each type of business writing:
Across the Board: 7 General Business Writing Tips
Before we dive into specific types of writing, the following tips are critical to good business writing - consider them the golden seven.
- Put purpose first and keep it simple
Take the time to think clearly about the message you want to communicate and make your point at the start. Your audience will often skim your writing to determine what warrants a closer read - don’t hide your message in the middle of your text or you will risk losing your readers.
- Write for your audience
Your audience determines your tone, the formality of your writing, and your content. Are you writing to a supervisor or a potential client? Consider the background, knowledge, and priorities of your reader.
- Think tone
Your purpose and audience determine the tone you take. How will your audience interpret what you wrote? Will it lead to the desired effect? Write to produce the actions you desire. Does the situation call for a professional and warm voice, or a direct and formal voice?
- Less is more
Unnecessary wordiness leads to your audience tuning out - be economical and concise. Use contractions when you can, trade “is”, “are”, “was”, and “were” for stronger verbs, and swap the passive for active voice (when appropriate - more below).
- Avoid jargon
Though jargon is attractive shorthand and sometimes industry-specific buzzwords can be unavoidable, jargon can indicate presumptuous and even lazy thinking. Return to your audience and reconsider what jargon is appropriate, and even then, how to minimize its use.
- Organize and format for accessibility
Your audience will be inundated with many forms of business writing throughout the day - how can you organize and format your writing to ensure it stands out and delivers your message clearly? Use headings and subheadings to avoid information overload, utilize white space, shorter paragraphs, and bullet points to streamline information, and minimize clunky formatting (for example, no more than two fonts).
- Review and get feedback
Before sending out your message, review it from your reader’s point of view. Is the message clear, does your logic flow? Reading out loud can reveal unforeseen awkward sections. Consider installing Grammarly on your web browser to catch spelling and most grammatical errors. Invite feedback from a colleague.
The 4 Types of Business Writing: When & How to Use Them
1. Informative Writing
A company’s essential business documents are informative writing, or writing for reference or record. Whether an informative document marks progress to date, predicts future work, or complies with legal obligations, accuracy and consistency are key. Though not necessarily a flashy form of business writing, informative documents build the base of operations - they catalog the life of a business. Consider using this type of business writing when you need to share impartial information with your audience.
Examples of informative writing include:
Reports archive information, capture progress (for example, financial summaries or forecasts), record incidents, make recommendations* and communicate business or technical information.
Summarizing the proceedings of a meeting, minutes record discussions, decisions, and next steps.
Tips for effective informative writing:
- Outline reports first
Don’t reinvent the wheel when writing reports - consistency builds trust. Follow the basic structure: introduction/background, purpose, investigation and explanation of findings, suggestions for action and conclusion. Outlining this structure will allow you to remain on track and present your information in a logical manner.
*A note on making recommendations: save these for the suggestions section only. Present your findings free of bias and include recommendations (persuasive writing) only if appropriate.
- Consider using a template
If you need to share a regular internal report, consider using a template to maximize your time and ensure coherence. For recording items such as meeting minutes, a template will streamline your note-taking process.
- Assume a neutral tone
Informative writing is objective and oftentimes more formal than other types of business writing. In fact, sometimes it is advisable to use the passive versus active voice. Note the difference between the active voice in, “The finance team needs to make changes in their communication style” and the passive voice in, “Changes in communication style need to be made in the finance department.” The passive voice places the emphasis on the action rather than the people, making it less personal and more formal.
- Include graphics and multiple modes of presenting information
Information is more memorable when multiple senses are activated; present data in tables, charts, and diagrams. You can even embed photos of notes on a whiteboard or flipchart in meeting notes.
2. Instructional Writing
Whether you are developing a new product or service or training employees, instructional writing requires action. Your reader needs information to complete a task - how can you present these main points in the clearest and simplest way possible? That said, your audience’s previous knowledge of the topic may vary - how can you account for varied prior experience and potential setbacks?
Examples of instructional writing include:
- User manuals
Positive user experience relies on well-written guides instructing users how to use a new product or service.
- Internal processes and training documents
Internally circulated guides explaining processes to members within an organization. Similar to user manuals, yet written for use within a business.
Shared within an organization, memos notify readers of new information and can include instructions on how to complete a requested task.
A technical document that outlines a product or process so that it can be put together or deconstructed by the user.
Tips for effective instructional writing:
- Focus on specific learning objectives
What exactly do you want your reader to be able to do? Think active verbs here: construct, respond, integrate, collaborate, etc. Write this in 1-2 sentences for your own reference and use it to parry down your instructions; include only information that helps your reader achieve this learning goal.
- Anticipate misunderstandings
Brainstorm questions and/or problems your audience may have in the process and account for these in your instructions.
- Chunk it
Think of the steps to a recipe here. Most people can only hold 4-7 pieces of information at a time in their short-term memory - don’t overload your readers.
- Use the active voice and plain language
Be clear about who is doing what; use strong verbs and the imperative in your instructions. Jargon and complex instructions will distract your audience from the intended outcome.
- Situate people in scenarios (training documents)
Creating scenarios allows your audience to better relate to the content and clarifies when your instructions apply.
3. Transactional Writing
If informational writing takes the pulse of a business, records statistics, and presents an analysis, transactional writing is the pulse - it is the everyday communication a business relies on for operations. Often associated with human resource processes, transactional writing persuades or informs, often by email, though it can also include official business letters, forms, and invoices.
Examples of transactional writing include:
All information that can be communicated briefly between staff and clients via email.
- Dismissal notices
Official business letters providing the context and next steps associated with employment termination.
Tips for effective transactional writing:
- Check: is this email worthy?
We have all received unnecessary emails which affect our view of the sender - don’t fall into this trap. Ask yourself if email is the appropriate medium for this information. Consider different factors: is this an apology or bad news? Does it contain sensitive information? Does this require too many clarifications better made via company chat platform or in person?
- Single email, single purpose
The best way to ensure a desired response is to limit each email to one specific item, task, or request. Laundry listing or combining multiple topics can confuse your reader and result in inaction. If you are making requests related to the same topic, use a numbered list for clarity - help your staff or client out. Use the “Bottom Line On Top” (BLOT) strategy - state your purpose right after your greeting. If you have a request, state it clearly near the end of your email with a timeline for an expected response.
- Utilize your sender fields in email
You may expect a response from some recipients, whereas others just need to be aware of ongoing communication. Your “To” field should be your direct audience who you expect to reply or act on your email, “Cc” is your secondary audience who needs to be aware of the ongoing communication, and “Bcc” is a one-time audience who just needs to see your initial email and no further replies.
- Write intentional subject lines
This is your best chance of having your email opened upon receipt. If your subject is too vague or too lengthy, your email runs the risk of getting lost in the “Unread” pile. Think of your subject line as a mini summary of your email, a 3-8 word overview of its content. If actions are required and/or its time sensitive, specify.
- Ensure formatting matches tone
Avoid using all caps (aggressive, informal) and overuse of punctuation such as exclamation points (also can be interpreted as too informal). Consider using italics and bold formatting to emphasize important points.
4. Persuasive Writing
Often associated with sales, persuasive writing is generally what people associate with “business writing” - this is the public face of all organizations. All persuasive writing has the singular goal of presenting information and convincing the reader that this information offers the best value. In business, persuasive writing can be direct (such as specific proposal), or indirect (such as focusing on developing a client relationship). The benefit of effective persuasive writing in the business world is obvious: want clients?
Examples of persuasive writing include:
Classic documents that outline a business’s product or service to a specific client. Components include a project overview, benefits, timeline, costs, and justifications.
- Sales emails
Public facing emails presenting a product or service to a large audience.
- Press releases
Content that presents new information to the media, intended to persuade the media to share your news through their own channels.
Tips for writing effective proposals:
- Demonstrate a deep understanding of the problem
Identify your client’s problem and research it well - show that you know their concerns, wants, and needs, and how your solution is the most effective and valuable. By developing an emotional connection with your client, they are more likely to trust and choose your business.
- Tell a story
Drive your relatability home by incorporating storytelling where appropriate. Anecdotes add the human element to your proposal. Keep in mind if your proposal is boring to write it’s likely boring to read as well.
- Be clear: why are you the best fit?
Many novice proposal writers make the mistake of talking the talk, centering their focus on how great their product or service is, rather than on how great they will make their client’s business. How will you add value and what impact will you have on their long-term success?
- Know your competition
Don’t write out of context - understand who your competitors are, their possible solutions to your client’s problem, perhaps their strategies and pricing - and use this information to make your proposal irresistible.
- Ask rhetorical questions
A classic persuasive writing strategy, asking rhetorical questions draws attention and invites your audience to keep reading.