The Three Biggest Mistakes in Business Writing

Credit: Paul Inkles,
Credit: Paul Inkles,

On my first day as a communications specialist, my new boss handed me an article request from one of the internal departments I’d be covering for the company. I was eager to make a good impression, but more eager to show off what I thought were my best assets as a writer—my attention to tone and flow, a clear sense of voice, and a precise and extensive vocabulary suited to any situation. With no small amount of pride, I handed the assignment back to my boss to be edited, then we broke for lunch.

When I returned, the article was sitting in my inbox, bleeding red ink. I almost cried; my beautiful, elegant and interesting piece had been hacked to under 250 words, and almost every sentence had been gutted. Corporate communications—I was doing it wrong. I had even made a typo in the company’s (registered) name!

Over the next few years I learned how to pay attention to what actually matters in business communications: writing that persuades people, motivates them to take action, and most importantly, educates them without wasting their time. Here are the three most important principles to keep in mind when you’re writing (or editing) business writing.

Your audience wants to know what’s in it for them. In every piece of business writing, you need to answer this essential question, or your work won’t get read. If your company is launching a new marketing program, don’t go into detail about how the ads will look, sound and feel, tell your audience how they’ll drive business, promote your product and boost the bottom line.

Clarity over creativity. If you can explain a topic in a ten-word sentence, you can probably explain it in a five-word one. Instead of, “Installer 6.4.1, a brand-new set of printer drivers that hits office supply stores next month, will open a new world of wireless productivity and efficiency for your business clients,” say, “Installer 6.4.1 hits stores in July and offers upgraded printer drivers for wireless capability your clients will love.”

Front-load your articles. In a business environment, your readers won’t appreciate the drama of a good literary introduction, or being made to wait until the end of a memo to get to the point of the message. Make sure your headline has at least the what and the when, and organize your thoughts so the first sentence or two answers the why and the how (much). That way, your busy readers that skim can still catch the point without having their time wasted.

And protip: Try not to accidentally misspell the company name when you turn in your work… like I did.