Business Writing

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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"When in doubt," detective novelist Raymond Chandler once suggested to struggling writers, "have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand." The concept works as well in nonfiction--business writing, news reporting, or technical training, for example--as in fiction. It translates to a simple formula: catch the reader's attention with a question that demands an answer and persuade the reader to care about it.

Business writing carries a lot of weight. It has a high profile, thanks in part to network infrastructure and the pervasiveness of the Internet, and in part to its nature. Whether you're talking about a funding proposal, an inter-office memo, a merger proposition, a corporate report, or a cover letter, business writing as important as it always has been. It only seems as difficult, however. The rewards of mastering it are straightforward.

Business Writing: What's at Stake

A recent survey of Fortune 1000 executives, for example, highlights how important good writing skills are in the marketplace. More than 80 percent said that they routinely rule out job applicants solely on the basis of writing style--poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling--in a cover letter. A full 99 percent said that writing skills--good or bad--are a big factor in promotions. Any time you spend honing those skills is worthwhile.

This doesn't mean becoming a writer. It means learning how to communicate clearly. We know perfectly well that business writing will never win a Pulitzer Prize, which fortunately isn't what we're after. That said, it shares many of the same qualities as prize winning writing. The fewer words you use, and the more cleanly you use them, the more effective your writing generally is.

Think about it. Help. Yes. No. Buy. Sell. These are one-word imperative sentences. Business writing is persuasion. It is not fiction or journalism or political analysis. Neither is it a technical manual, a legal treatise, or a scientific study. This doesn't mean that the task is easy. It certainly doesn't mean that most business writing is clear and effective.

Business Writing: How to Improve Yours

What comes first? The first step is to freshen up on grammar and punctuation. These rules are simple and fewer than we think. If you want a book for the shelf, look at The Gregg Reference Manual, first published in 1956. It's comprehensive, cleanly presented in a spiral binding, and useful. The biggest challenge in writing, however, is a matter of style and usage. It's critical to be able to distinguish among these elements.

Usage and style are intertwined with grammar and punctuation and the mix is certainly confusing. Reading and looking at examples pays off. The quarter-inch thick Strunk and White has become pretty much the de facto starting point. If you want not only good advice but a wonderful example of first-rate writing, take a look at Joseph Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. It's both more comprehensive and a bit more sophisticated.

As far as the writing process itself is concerned, a simple bullet list of reminders is a good starting point. The rest is practice. Know what you're going to say. Get to the point. Keep it simple. Use the active voice. Forget adjectives. Be a reporter--give the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Keep it short. "Put it before them briefly so they will read it," Joseph Pulitzer explained, "clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by it."

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