Writing Tips

9 Steps to Clear Business Writing: by Brad Shorr

The ability to communicate clearly is always important, but when it comes to business writing, clarity reigns supreme. In business, words drive decisions and action. Write clearly, and you help colleagues and customers make the right decisions. Write haphazardly, and you lay the groundwork for mistakes and confusion. Since most companies prefer profits to problems, make every effort to turn clarity into your standout writing skill. Here are my nine clarity tips - I hope they help.

  1. Say what you mean. Don’t beat around the bush when you deliver bad news - out with it! When announcing a price increase, don’t say, “Due to a sustained imbalance in raw material availability, we find it necessary to notify you of a 5% price adjustment.” Among other things, the writer of such a sentence assumes customers will infer that a 5% adjustment means a 5% increase. Well, customers may or may not infer correctly, but either way they won’t enjoy wasting time decoding your message. Don’t be afraid to say “price increase” - not saying it won’t make it go away.
  2. Use facts and be precise. Staying with the example above, we can make the announcement much clearer by simply saying, “Because of rising raw material costs, we are forced to announce a 5% price increase.” But perhaps this is too simple. A few facts and a bit more clarification will give customers all the information they need to fully comprehend your meaning. Let’s try this. “Because the cost of our largest raw material component, steel, has risen 14% since January, 2007, we must increase your price 5%, effective with orders placed January 1, 2008.” In business, facts make decisions easier to accept, and more pleasant to debate.
  3. State your purpose right away. Did you ever read an e-mail or a business article and get four paragraphs into it before getting your first clue as to its purpose? If you have memories of such an experience, I’ll wager they are not fond. Business correspondence is not a mystery novel. The business reader does not curl up in a chair by the fireplace, savoring every word in eager anticipation of your thrilling conclusion. Let readers know right off the bat what your purpose is, and why they should care.
  4. Have a purpose. In sales, everybody talks about customer “touches”. Reaching out to customers is indeed praiseworthy, but it needs to consist of more than an e-mail saying, “Hi Jan. Haven’t talked to you in awhile. Just wanted to let you know I’m still here.” Give your customer a link to a relevant blog post. Offer a piece of industry insight. Talk about a new product or service. Irrelevant touches grow annoying. Relevant touches grow valuable.
  5. Avoid jargon. We tend to get so wrapped up in our specialty we forget that people at large neither know nor want to know our lingo. What’s clear inside the corporate box might be incomprehensible outside. For example … When I was in packaging, I would find myself slipping into sentences such as, “Because this tape has a 3.0 mil, biaxially-oriented polypropylene backing, it’s tensile and transverse directional strength are vastly superior to the competition.” What I should have said was, “For all practical purposes, this tape is indestructible.” You can never go wrong writing in plain English.
  6. Follow the rules of grammar. Am I stating the obvious? Perhaps, but it’s equally obvious that poor grammar plagues business writing, rendering it vague, confusing, or flat out meaningless. If you’re a business leader, I encourage you to offer the staff basic training in grammar and style. Every writing workshop I’ve conducted has been well received. Whereas employees sometimes resent being “trained”, they unabashedly acknowledge weak writing skills and are eager to improve them. Self improvement? Many excellent writing blogs are at our fingertips. My favorites include Copyblogger, Away With Words, Bad Language, Manage Your Writing, and of course, Confident Writing. What are some of yours?
  7. Use a sounding board. Have someone you trust read your composition before you hit “Send”. Often, we don’t see the forest for the trees. We think we’ve written clearly, but we’ve missed a few steps or jumped to a conclusion. My sounding boards have spared me many an embarrassing moment.
  8. Be brief. Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Blaise Pascal said, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” Brad says, “When in doubt, leave it out.” Chipping away the excess makes your point as clear and memorable as an ice sculpture.
  9. Mean what you say. Exaggeration, idle threats, and intentional misrepresentation have no place in business writing. Ultimately, credibility and trust are what make colleagues and customers pay attention to your words.

My list is by no means exhaustive, which is a wonderful thing. What makes writing fascinating to me is that one can always learn more, a fact which explains the popularity and importance of blogs like Joanna’s. What has experience taught you about clarity in business writing?

Brad Shorr is a sales and marketing consultant who lives near Chicago, Illinois. His company, Word Sell, Inc., provides strategic consulting, sales training and coaching, and business blog and other online marketing services.

His blog explores issues of interest to small and mid-size business - sometimes quite seriously, but often with a touch of humor. Brad is a voracious reader, a blogger since 2005, a sometimes cartoon writer, and one who dislikes writing about himself in the third person. He is a regular reader of Confident Writing

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach

Because our words count

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14 Responses to “9 Steps to Clear Business Writing: by Brad Shorr”

  1. On October 18, 2007 at 9:48 am Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Brad, thanks for accepting my challenge to write about yourself in the third person. I think you handled it masterfully!

    I loved this piece - you really made me think, and smile, esp the part about the duct tape!

    Thanks once again for joining us a guest author here - I hope this will be the first post of many.


  2. On October 18, 2007 at 12:59 pm Brad Shorr responded with... #

    Thanks Joanna! I learned that writing for someone else’s blog is somewhat nerve-wracking. But fun, too.

  3. On October 18, 2007 at 1:40 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Brad, I’m glad it was fun as well as nerve-wracking. I know what you mean - each time I’ve written for someone else I’ve been terrified - but also very pleased with the end result (it’s the stretch I guess).

    I’m busily procrastinating over what to write for you - will come up with something in a few days I hope!


  4. On October 18, 2007 at 1:52 pm Robert Hruzek responded with... #

    Very good list, Brad! I like the way you used #1 and #9 as “bookends” - nice technique.

    Actually, I think #1 is the hardest one to actually DO - so many people tend to hate bad news. (Then there’s also that pesky “kill the messenger” syndrome to deal with.)

  5. On October 18, 2007 at 1:58 pm Brad Shorr responded with... #

    Robert, I agree number one is tough, but a mentor once told me, “Unlike wine, business problems don’t improve with age.” If you’re going to get “killed”, might as well get it over with!

  6. On October 19, 2007 at 10:33 am Emma Bird responded with... #

    Hi Brad

    Good list.

    I like point 7. I think it’s fair to say that you can be your own sounding board, too, if no one else is around. By reading the piece out load you can see where it jars, where the rhythm doesn’t flow and where it doesn’t make sense.

    The duct tape also got me smiling.


  7. On October 19, 2007 at 1:33 pm Brad Shorr responded with... #

    Emma, reading out loud is definitely a reliable technique - thanks for pointing it out. And I didn’t realize tape was this funny!

  8. On October 19, 2007 at 3:47 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi Emma, Robert and Brad

    I just have to say how much I love having readers who are willing to critique and compliment each other’s writing techniques!


  9. On October 22, 2007 at 6:41 pm Emma Bird responded with... #

    Brad - I was a journalist. Trying to make sense of other people’s sentences and phrasing is what I spent lots of my time doing.

    Joanna - it’s thanks to the environment you’ve created that allows us to critique each other. As for the fat, there’s no need to be paranoid unless you want to go shopping.


  10. On October 23, 2007 at 7:10 am Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Emma - thank you. And for the reassurance about the ciccia!


  11. On March 21, 2008 at 12:54 pm Ranjith responded with... #

    Business writing, it is shorter and more concise than many other types of writing. Business is busy - Your letter, a memo or a report can only thirty second reading (if it), with no time for brooding or unburdened. They would better adapt to the point quickly, support your arguments, and quickly ended.

    Business is often written as an inverted pyramid, too. They begin and end with a large foyer close - to configure a home draw the attention of your readers, if you wish - convincing your reader or on facts, arguments, decision, etc.

    There are a few subtleties, business writing, however. If bad news to provide, for example, that you are not directly in the long jump, but work to your message with diplomacy and tact. In addition, there is no time to waste, the drive for more obscure by paternalistic.

    Finally, the business has been accepted in writing certain formats, such as, for example, to organize notes, reports and letters. In addition, some companies generally accepted practices in writing: written, concise, with balls and securities, short sentences occupied, the creation of short paragraphs and more quickly on the point.

    In short, the economy must be in writing kind readers. If this is not the case, your efforts to communication fail. I wish you much happiness in your travel writing - perhaps in the links below offer several help.

  12. On March 21, 2008 at 8:29 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Ranjith, thanks for stopping by and sharing these perspectives with us.

    One thing that puzzles me is that business people are very aware of their time as readers - but tend to forget the importance of readability, speed etc when they are writing. An investment of time and effort on their part will save other people a lot of time and energy. If they’d just put their reader’s hat on when they were writing surely we could transform business writing?



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