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Business Writing Tips
David Speaker is a professional business writer and document
expert. This page is a compilation of Mr. Speaker's business writing tips, which are written and posted in the blog forum linked above.
Business Writing Tip 1
Identify the Audience
Before you start writing,
ask and answer this question: Who is the intended
audience? Be specific enough that you can picture the audience
in your mind. A deliberate answer to this question establishes many criteria for your writing project. It serves as a basic guidepost for
the writing process.
A related inquiry is:
aside from the intended audience, who may see this? I.e., whose desk
might it cross, intentionally or not. Consider this part of the audience
If your audience is
fractured, you may want to consider writing different versions of the
document for those different audience groups.
Understand Your Purpose and Objective
Before you start writing,
identify clearly in your own mind why you are writing and what you want to accomplish. For what purpose do you write? Do you want to inform, persuade, delight, argue with, inquire of, report to, or entertain your audience? As you write consider whether your words serve the objective effectively. Everything you write should have a purpose; otherwise, what's the point? Remember, you are asking readers to spend their time with your words, and their attention spans are short. If your words serve your purpose, your readers are more likely to stay focused.
Business Writing Tip 2
What do Your Readers Know? Know Your Audience!
Know your reader's limitations. Step out and put
yourself in their place. When writing, it's easy to assume your audience knows or believes things that you know, or that they think like you think, or should know certain subjects. It's also easy to overlook what they don't know. In
fact, these are common writing mistakes. By failing to ensure you know your audience, you risk leaving gaps in
your presentation's flow, substance, and logic.
Check your premises in this regard. Knowing their
limitations enables you to tune in to how to present and what to say.
Be sure you give them enough information to understand your point. On the other hand, be
careful not to insult or bore them by giving them supporting or background information they don't need. This is a balancing act, but well-prepared writers are deliberate about it.
Business Writing Tip 3
Writing is a deliberate and active mental process. It requires that you focus your mind. Your writing will flow more easily if you remove distractions from your environment. Enable yourself to concentrate.
Business Writing Tip 4
When writing news releases—and to increase your news coverage—the Dow Jones News Services's managing editor suggests this tip: Include a "significant paragraph" at the beginning of the release that concisely explans what the release is about and why it's important. (Source: Communication Briefings, Volume XXII, Number 1, page 3, citing, Robert D. Prinsky in Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter, JR O'Dwyer Co., 271 Madison Ave., NY, NY 10016.)
posted by David K. Speaker - April 21, 2006
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Business Writing Tip 5
Do you know when you're writing is ambiguous? If not, you should. Ambiguity is something skilled writers control; it is usually a flaw, as its presence leads to confusion. Why? Because an ambiguous word or phrase is one capable of more than one meaning. It's rare that a writer's object is to confuse the reader. Knowing when ambiguity serves your purpose vs. when it encumbers your writing requires that the writer understand its utility and features.
Ambiguity should not be confused with vagueness. They are distinct. Sometimes vagueness is a useful tool, as when limiting the disclosure of information or the full context.
posted by David K. Speaker - May 1, 2006
Business Writing Tip 6
Your view of things always depends on your perspective. To see clearly as a writer, you must therefore be cognizant of perspective.
Business Writing Tip 19
Definitions and Vague Words
When writing documents other parties will rely on, or that govern a relationship, don't make assumptions about the words you choose. For example, the phrase "timely payments" could be perfectly clear to you, because you know how you mean it. But you must be sure all parties governed by the document know how you mean it in the document's context.
Be aware of the context in which you use the phrase. In our example, timely payments may mean any number of things to different people. A creditor may think a payment is "timely" if it arrives by the due date—but is that the only logical or appropriate standard? No. Standards of timeliness depend on the reader's (or party's) perspective. A lawyer may think a payment is timely if it was made in time to prevent a lawsuit from being filed, a business owner may think it's timely if it prevents the company from going under, and a consumer may think a payment is timely if it's made in a manner that doesn't impair a credit record.
Be aware of the innuendo created by use of a phrase like "timely payment." Would someone reading that phrase assume the party agreeing to make a timely payment also had a duty to protect another party's credit rating, and that credit protection was the nature of the obligation being assumed, even though the rest of the document did not mention credit issues? Be careful.
If a word or phrase is subject to differing interpretations, or innuendo, define it. That's your job as a good writer. Don't leave it up to the reader, and don't leave it up to what's logical to you. Anticipate the varying interpretations of the phrases you choose.
Business Writing Tip 20
Opinions and Writing
While everyone has the right to an opinion, most opinions are valueless, mere emotional expressions, or repeated rhetoric. Opinions expressed without a supporting argument are worthless and quickly dismissed. Opinions expressed with substantive support have value, and merit attention, because they inform, educate, or engage the listener or reader.
If you had more facts, or different facts, your opinion would likely change. (Unless your opinion is based on clear and unchanging values.) A common writing mistake is to assume the facts as you understand them are in fact the real (or only) facts. Few permit themselves to see (anticipate) what they can't see. That is, the facts that don't appear to them. Writing well requires that we understand our own limitations.
Business Writing Tip 6.5
Take the time before you start writing to outline the major subjects and points to cover. Scrutinize the outline for orderly, logical flow, and balance. Much of your outline may come from notes you compile as thoughts occur to you. You don't need to have an outline before you start compiling notes, but the outline will help organize the notes.
Then start writing.
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Business Writing Tip 21
Writing Poorly or Insufficiently Has Consequences
We Lost the Deal
"We didn't get the deal." "The investor walked away—no explanation." "We need more information, you're not ready yet." "The banker wasn't willing to take us to the next level." “This isn’t in the format we require.”
We've all heard similar comments following an attempt to secure an opportunity and move the business forward. When opportunities are lost, disappointment follows, and we often attribute the failure to the other party. In many cases, however, while you the businessperson may understand your proposal, you have not recognized or understood the reader's perspective and limitations, what the reader needs to see in order to make a decision, or what the reader's decision-making environment is.
This failure to "connect" with the reader causes the loss. Persuasion begins with understanding the reader, what prompts the reader to the action you seek, and how the reader's decisions are made.
Why give the lawyers any more to do?
Many lawyers we know have haplessly made handsome fortunes off the backs of companies whose documents or publications were substandard, where errors or oversights opened a window to liability. Lesson for business writers—always review for accuracy.
When representing clients in court we often concluded that if one or both parties had just taken care to produce competent, clear, unambiguous documents, courtroom discussions would not be necessary, nor would we have to fritter away our productive time (at least 2 lawyers, 2 parties and 1 judge) arguing over what the author meant with a particular paragraph or why an important concept or fact was omitted.
The lawyers get richer, businesses pay, and public resources are wasted. A judge's time is valuable, so is yours. So, why waste that time arguing issues that could have been eliminated through competent writing in the first place?
Take it from former conflict resolution specialists, if your written communication is not understood by your audience as you understand it, you are sowing seeds of conflict—and conflict inevitably leads to a monumental waste of your time and resources. A careful business writer avoids these troubles and costs by reviewing and editing their work with an eye toward judges and lawyers as potential future audiences.
Business Writing Tip 22
Framing the Issue or Question
Framing the issue or question at hand clearly has many advantages. Sometimes this requires simplifying difficult ideas. If you are negotiating or attempting to resolve an adversarial situation, you gain an advantage by clearly framing the issue before the other party does, since all answers depend on the questions asked. If you frame the issue, you're better positioned to control the dialog.
After you've framed the issue satisfactorily, present the framed question or issue to your reading audience within the first 60 seconds of their review. Deliver the goods right up front. This strengthens the issue framing effort.
Part of framing an issue or question effectively is ensuring your underlying premises are unassailable. Framing must be done in a manner that enables readers to "get their mind around" an issue or question, and feel comfortable with the decision they must make.
A properly framed question or issue delivers the answer or solution to the reader at the same time, without stating it. When this isn't possible, then immediately follow the question with the answer, demonstrating that your answer is the obvious one.
When your "framing" governs the dialog, you're more likely to accomplish your writing mission.
Business Writing Tip 23
Edit Wordy Phrases
Every word used has a job to do. Don't use words that aren't essential to your meaning. Unnecessary words clutter sentences and obscure meaning. Examples:
— in order to = to
— in respect of = about
— for the purpose of = to
— am not in a position to = can't
— on two separate occasions = twice
— pertaining to = about
— in light of the fact that = because
— in the course of = during
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