Writing Concisely for Business

This semester I’m teaching three courses, of which two are writing intensive. Sometimes this feels like I’m teaching six of them. These are business courses. My students must know how to communicate effectively among their colleagues and of course, in social media with potential customers. The following is an excerpt from our private class blog. I figure they are not the only ones who could benefit from some writing insights.

the Point

It’s snowing today. It’s the middle of April. The weather thrills no one.

I’m reading blogs and integrated marketing communication plans today and I noticed that my students’ sentences are usually a lot longer than mine (see my three sentences above). In business writing, we aim to inform our readers concisely. Many of us tend to write what we think, which is a great way to begin. However, everyone needs to go back and rewrite so our readers understand immediately what we mean.

According to INC. magazine we should obey Rule No. 1: Get to the Point. I agree–the lesson is how. Below I’ve curated a few sections from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) to help you, get to the point.

Online writing tips from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Conciseness:  http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/683/04/

Directness  http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/683/01/

Academic writing in North America has often been described as “direct.” This can mean two things: 1) dealing immediately with the topic at hand without extra information; 2) using clear and precise language to describe even the most uncomfortable and taboo subjects. Direct writing will be seen by professors and other readers as lean and efficient. Follow these strategies to make your writing more direct:

  • Create an outline of your text before writing, and compare your early drafts with the outline. If a word or a sentence does not contribute to any of the points in your outline, remove it.
  • When you review your early drafts, look for ways to make your sentences shorter, but without removing any important meanings from them. If you can do this, then make them shorter.
  • Look for euphemisms (mild or vague expressions for something that is uncomfortable to talk about). If you find any euphemisms, change them to clearer language.

Writing for a North American Business Audience   http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/651/1/

Every country has its own set of rules and expectations about the ways to communicate in a business setting. In some countries, they may place less emphasis on written materials and more emphasis on verbal communication. However, in the United States, memos, letters, [social media, white papers,] and emails are important and play a role in creating a person’s business reputation.

Getting to the Point

The question “so what is your point” is very common with American audiences. In general, North Americans prefer to get a preview of the main ideas so that they know what to expect. Time is an important factor for U.S. business people because they do not have much of it. So it is important to state your purpose or “the bottom line” for writing at the beginning of your document.

Here is an example of a hidden main point where the writer is requesting employment verification*:

Dear Personnel Director:

On March 27, I received a phone call from Mrs. Karen Krane from New York, who was once a data entry clerk in your Ohio office. She was under the direct supervision of…..

As you can see, the above statement goes on several sentences and the writer still has not revealed his or her purpose. A busy personnel director might skip over this request and make it a last priority.

This is an example with the main point clearly stated:

Dear Personnel Director:

Would you verify the employment of Mrs. Karen Krane? She was a data entry clerk in your Ohio office (fill in the details) Sincerely,

Often times writers will place their main point at the bottom of their document because they are either delivering bad news or they are afraid their ideas will be rejected. But business writing experts warn against this style of writing. Bad news should always be delivered up front. Also remember that while you do not want to be too shy about delivering bad news, you also do not want to be too aggressive when you submit an idea or suggestion. For example, “We must hire a new secretary now” has an aggressive tone that your reader may not appreciate. Instead write something like, “I know that you do not think we should hire a new secretary now, but I really think we need to. Please let me explain my reasons.”

Keeping It Simple

You may have heard your English instructors tell you not to worry yourself over complicated sentences and impressive words. Just use simple language to get your point across and you will have more success. Well, the same proves true for business writing. You might feel compelled to use bigger words or more complex sentences to build credibility with your audience.

The two primary reasons to avoid such tactics are:a) you might be perceived as a con artist or, b) your message might become confusing.

An example of using “impressive words”:

Subsequent to the passage of the subject legislation, it is incumbent upon you to advise your organization to comply with it.*

An example using simple words:

After the law passes, you must tell your people to comply with it.*

The second passage is much easier to understand and it gets straight to the point. There is little room for misunderstanding with that statement.

Using Passive and Active Voice*

Passive voice has three basic characteristics:

A form of the verb to be (is, am are, was, were, be, been, or being).

A past participle (a verb ending in -ed or -en except irregular verbs like kept).

A prepositional phrase beginning with by (though this is not always the case)

Here is a sentence using all three characteristics:

The meeting is being held by the human resources department.

Another sample of a passive sentence:

It was decided that the experiment would be conducted at noon.

Passive statements convey a clear message and in some cases (those without the prepositional phrase) are grammatically correct. But the problem is that writers often over use passive phrases.

A writer uses passive voice to purposefully leave out the actor or subject of the sentence in an effort to sound more diplomatic. Look at this example.

Active: “I decided that everyone must retake the exam.”
Passive: “It has been decided that everyone must retake the exam.”

The passive example takes the actor out of the sentence so that the audience cannot directly blame someone.

Author Edward Bailey offers a few suggestions on when to use passive voice. He says there are three instances to use it:

When you don’t know the actor

When the actor is unimportant to the point you’re making (“The Congressman was re-elected.”)

When the emphasis is clearly not on the actor but on the acted upon (“What happened to the little girl? The little girl was rescued.”)

If your purpose does not fall into one of three categories above then use active direct voice. But be careful not to be too direct. You would not want to tell an employer that he or she should hire you because “I am the best.”

For more about active and passive voice, click here for a whole OWL handout devoted to it.

Using Nondiscriminatory Language

Nondiscriminatory language is language that treats all people equally. It does not use any discriminatory words, remarks, or ideas. It is very important that the business writer communicate in a way that expresses equality and respect for all individuals. It is the kind of language that can come between you and your reader. Make sure your writing is free of sexist language and free of bias based on such factors as race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, and disability.

Use neutral job titles.

Not Good: Chairman
Better: Chairperson

Avoid demeaning or stereotypical terms.

Not Good: After the girls in the office receive an order, our office fills it within 24 hours
Better: When orders are received from the office, they are filled within 24 hours

Avoid words and phrases that unnecessarily imply gender.

Not Good: Executives and their wives
Better: Executives and their spouses

Omit information about group membership

Not Good: Connie Green performed the job well for her age.
Better: Connie Green performed the job well

If you do not know a reader’s gender, use a nonsexist salutation.

Not Good: Dear Gentlemen:
Better: Associate Director Chris Hammond:

Do not use masculine pronouns

Not Good: Each student must provide his own lab jacket
Better: Students must provide their own lab jackets. Or Each student must provide his or her own lab jacket.

For more about nondiscriminatory language, please see our OWL handout on nonsexist or appropriate language use.

Notes and References

* Bailey, Edward P. The Plain English Approach to Business Writing. Oxford University Press: NY, 1990.
** Mark Dollar. “Basic Tips for ESL Students: Writing for an American Audience.” Purdue OWL, 1999.

7 thoughts on “Writing Concisely for Business

  1. Important advice.
    Since I couldn’t not think of the grace and humor of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style as I read your words, Sara, i wondered what they had to say about clarity in business writing.

    In the blog, “Minding Gaps,” I found this:

    Never ones to mince words, Strunk and White bemoaned verbal confusion and ambiguity as “a destroyer of life, of hope.” For too many leaders, in both business and government, that is just what happens when acronyms, euphemisms, jargon, and evasion pass for communication….

    Strunk and White have compelling advice to anyone in a position of leadership and anyone who helps leaders communicate: “When you have said something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”

  2. I am guilty of not writing in a clear, simple manner. A bit is expected as an attorney but excessive passive voice is my downfall! Great post.

  3. This is great! Sometimes when I speak or write something, I say things that may seem offensive, but I don’t mean them. The translation from my language is totally different and embarrassing at sometimes. I try to improve my communication skills, but this takes some time.

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