Build the Right Foundations for Business Writing the Right Way
We crawl before walking, walk before running — why shouldn’t business writing be the same?
When I started work more than eight years ago, my boss often rewrote whatever I drafted.
It didn’t matter what it was — email, slide deck, research note, meeting minutes. Words would be replaced, sentences rearranged, entire paragraphs reconfigured. Nothing was sacred. Sometimes, there was no trace whatsoever that the original — my work — even existed.
It wasn’t a great feeling. I often asked myself if I was really that bad. After all, I did well with written work in university. Surely, I was doing something right!
Yet, deep down, I knew the drafts always turned out better. More crisp. More economical. More digestible.
Looking back, having my stuff rewritten all the time was probably one of the best things that could have happened for my career — for three reasons:
- One, writing well is hard. Doing it consistently is even harder. Like any skill, it takes massive amounts of practice. I was lucky to have someone like my boss forcing me to build the right habits early. Have I since mastered the skill of business writing? Probably not. But those experiences taught me a great deal about how to recognise good and bad business writing. That itself goes a long way in producing better drafts, one deliberate revision at a time.
- Two, good business writing is not — or is rarely — taught in school. Every year, I’m reminded of this every time I work with a fresh graduate. For the most part of our education, we are surrounded by people who — by definition — have to listen or read what we have to say. That is the design of most classrooms, lectures and examinations. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t write well. Someone somewhere had a job to read it anyway. Obviously, this doesn’t apply in your professional life. Nobody is obliged to read what you write, which brings me to the next and final point.
- Three, good business writing matters. People who can’t do it are usually unheard. A great idea is an irrelevant one if you can’t get people to understand or to care. If you’re in charge — and by definition, people have to listen to you — then it matters even more. Writing badly is inefficient; one study estimates a loss of $400 billion a year. It’s also dangerous. A good decision that is misunderstood — and therefore poorly implemented — can do serious damage to the organisation and beyond. Conversely, good business writing can really pay off. But don’t take it from me. I’m sure there’s a reason for — among others — Amazon’s insistence on 6-page memos, and the fascination with Warren Buffett’s letters to Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders.
In a post-pandemic world, good business writing will matter even more. Think about it. A complete shift to remote working is unlikely, but a hybrid approach? That’s plausible. More companies are exploring that. This probably means more emails, more text messages, more written communication. In that deluge, clear and crisp business writing will be more important than ever.
This article will share what I’ve learned over the years about how to methodically improve your business writing.
How is this different from any other writing guide?
There are plenty of resources out there about writing well — whether in a business context of otherwise. Most provide broad aphorisms (e.g. ‘avoid jargon’) or very specific practices (e.g. ‘use the active voice’), followed by an emphasis on practice. It is akin to a toolbox with a set of commandments, which one deploys and becomes better at deploying (hopefully) over time.
While I find these useful, I’ve wondered: Is that all there is to it?
I don’t think so.
I believe there is a more organised way to build and improve business writing skills. As an analogy, think about how human beings learn to move. We crawl before we learn to stand on two feet. Then we walk. Run. Sprint. So on, so forth. It is a natural progression from the simple to the sophisticated.
I believe there is a similar order to develop business writing skills. This is how I see it:
- Level 1: Be relevant (Step I: Set the context; Step II: Frame the content)
- Level 2: Be clear (Step III: Write precisely; Step IV: Rewrite to be concise)
- Level 3 (also Step V): Be compelling to your audience
Like physical movement, I believe it may be better to learn business writing in this particular order. Otherwise, we may end up stumbling around more than we’d like — endangering not only ourselves but also others.
You may argue whether it is ‘natural’. But I am certain that it is a more responsible order to learning business writing. Consider these scenarios below; I’m pretty sure we’ve all experienced some — if not all — of the scenarios on the right, be it as the person writing or the recipient:
This article will focus only on Levels 1 & 2, because I believe these are the most basic foundations upon which good business writing is built. As illustrated above, it’s also a more responsible way to learn. The last thing you want is an excellent sales pitch that is neither clear nor relevant. So, Level 3 will have to wait another day.
Level 1: Be relevant
First, think before you write.
Specifically, think about what needs to be said.
Not what you want to say.
Not how to say it.
Not what you find interesting.
No, think only about what needs to be said. The goal is to make sure you write about what’s relevant to the matter at hand.
Those other things can play a role, but they can come later. Worrying about them too early muddles your thinking, which in turn muddles your writing.
Step I: Set the context
Start with some background.
If it’s completely new territory to the recipient, give them a sense of the major landmarks. What are the key facts? What they need to know to meaningfully process the rest of the information that will be communicate? It helps to give a sense of timing and the matter at hand. For example:
- Today, departments A, B and C met on XYZ. The aim was to [clarify / update / decide] on […]. Specifically, two issues were discussed, namely […].
- Last week, the XYZ Committee decided to discontinue product A. The major consideration was [reasons for decision].
- We’ve had extensive discussions about [issue], which is among our top priorities for the year. There are generally three perspectives, […].
If it’s not something new to the recipient, there is no need to retell every detail. A brief reminder will do, for example:
- I’d like to follow up on this morning’s decision to XYZ.
- This is about Project A that your team is working on.
- On your team’s report on ABC, […]
On a tangential note, this is why it pays to communicate earlier. The sooner you do it, the less context you have to set up.
Step II: Frame the content
Now that you’ve set the stage, decide where the spotlight should go. Narrow the recipient’s focus. Framing the content is not really about writing. It’s about thinking clearly before you continue writing.
In particular, you should be clear what you hope to achieve. Ask yourself three questions:
- Are you writing to share information?
- Do you want or need the recipient to do something? What is it, specifically? Give facts? Share a view? Decide? Something else?
- If it’s a ‘yes’ for #2, do you know specifically what you’d like them to respond to?
It sounds obvious. And that’s precisely why it is such an important step in the writing process.
If the reader cannot quickly get a sense of those three things above, there’s a good chance that things go downhill from there. They might ignore what you write (or parts of it that don’t interest them), or give you a response that is irrelevant to you. Or they might — perhaps the worst outcome of all — ask for a meeting instead, because understanding what you wrote takes too much effort.
It gets more challenging when it’s a more complex matter. Maybe the issue isn’t easy to understand, well-defined or requires prior knowledge. Maybe it requires the recipient to contribute to the conversation in different ways — to decide on some items, but to just share a preliminary opinion on others.
Whatever the case, it is never the reader’s responsibility to wade through the complexity. It is always the writer’s. So be disciplined. Think through those three questions diligently every single time before you write something.
If you’re not sure about the answers, don’t write yet.
If you feel like you know, don’t write yet.
If you feel like they can figure it out, don’t write yet.
If you… well, you get the point.
You either know what you want from the reader when you write something, or you don’t. Don’t send anything until you do.
Level 2: Be clear
You’ve completed the steps in Level 1 — well done! You should now be clear about what you want to say, and what you want the reader to do with it.
Level 2 is about saying it clearly. Clarity is a a combination of precision and concision. Something that has been written clearly communicates exactly what you intend to, as economically as possible.
Do not conflate either precision or concision with clarity itself. Precision is about the accuracy and completeness of the information being communicated. Concision is about the efficiency in which that is done.
Step III: Write precisely
The key to being precise is to write exactly what you mean. It’s like a high resolution image. Every dimension and detail of information is captured.
Let’s be clear (pun not intended): The road to ineffective writing is paved with the intention to be precise. After all, when we aim for precision, we are — by definition — trying to minimise error in our communication. There is little, if any, room for (mis)interpretation.
When dealing with complex topics, this will correspond to complex sentences — along with qualifiers, footnotes and everything else that makes something a difficult read. Think about academic literature, technical papers and legal contracts. These are examples of high-precision writing — but I’m sure you’d agree that they are not page turners.
So why does mastering precision matter?
Because business writing is ultimately about conveying information or opinions that lead to decisions. And those decisions can have far-reaching consequences — for an entire firm, economy or society.
So, a responsible — dare I say, ethical — writer should first ensure that what they put down is accurate. So I reiterate: Write exactly what you mean.
It’s harder to do than it sounds. When we put down our thoughts on paper, we often have blinders on without realising it. We express our thoughts through a specific lens and language that is familiar to us. But it may not be familiar at all to another person or group of people.
Not sure if you’re being imprecise? Look out for these red flags:
- Generalisations, assertions, sweeping statements. These make for great rhetoric because they give the impression of certainty and perfect information. But deployed carelessly, it leads to an oversimplification of what you intend to say.
- Abstract or conceptual language. If you have to use such language, go for terminology that’s familiar to those who will be reading what you’re writing. Otherwise, it’s probably a good idea to define them somewhere. But clearly, this makes your draft harder to navigate. That’s why it’s best to avoid it entirely if you can.
- Platitudes. Get rid of these. People often ignore them (since they mean very little), or end up interpreting it the way they see fit… which is not always the way that what you intend.
If you’re not used to it, attempts to be maximise precision will lead to extremely heavy drafts. Some will be so heavy that nobody would want to read it at all. But don’t feel bad. This is expected, and is a crucial part of the training.
Not to mention that sharpening your message usually means that you’ve probably sharpened the underlying ideas along the way. That’s never a bad thing.
More importantly, being precise is only the first half of being clear. That’s why we have the next step.
Step IV: Rewrite to be concise
Being concise is about knowing how to say the same thing, with less and simpler language. This boils down to two things.
First, use less words.
On this, Strunk and White’s advice from The Elements of Style is timeless:
Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The viral notes from How To Write Like An Amazonian are equally instructive:
When it comes to concision, most writing advice stops there — that is, use less words to say the same thing. Yes, doing this alone will improve any piece of business writing by leaps and bounds. But I believe there’s another layer to it.
This brings me to what I think is the second element of being concise: reduce undue precision.
This is trickier. It isn’t just a matter of using shorter phrases or simpler words. It’s about deliberately being less precise, but doing so in a way that you’re still getting the right message across. You might have to omit certain information. You might have to use abbreviations, acronyms and even jargon — contrary to a lot of established writing wisdom. It’s risky.
In other words, it’s about asking yourself: how much can I trust the reader to know what I mean, without spelling everything out?
The right way to do this will depend on the situation. It requires judgment. In deciding how much risk you should take, you can consider the following:
- The reader’s likely attention span. The busier they are, the more you have to consider taking a risk. You might want to prioritise certain things, and reframe what you’re writing to be part of a longer conversation.
- The reader’s established vocabulary. The more experienced the reader is with the context of what you’re writing about, the more room there is for you to use jargon. The beauty of jargon — shocking, I know — is that when you use it the right way, it’s an incredibly efficient way to get your point across. Especially on a complex subject.
- The number of recipients. The bigger this is, the smaller the room you have to be imprecise. A wide range of stakeholders means a more diverse set of ‘lenses’ to interpret information. If you want a relevant response, it may be better to err on the side of being precise.
Congratulations — and thank you — for making it this far!
Here’s a recap of the key points from this article:
- Good business writing is a crucial skill — not only for you to be effective, but to be responsible, given that it leads to decisions with consequences in the real world.
- First, be relevant (Level 1). This is about setting the context and framing what the reader should focus on.
- Then, be clear (Level 2). This is about being precise (i.e. providing a high-resolution image) while being concise (i.e. providing that image efficiently). Sometimes, there’s a trade-off you have to choose between precision and concision; doing this effectively depends on the context and requires judgment.
- Finally, be compelling (Level 3). I’ll cover this in another article.
- Mastering business writing in that particular order (from Level 1 to 3) makes you a much more responsible communicator.