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12 Tips for Better Business Writing

12 Tips for Better Business Writing

Today’s business world is almost entirely information-driven. Whether you run a small business or occupy a small corner of the org-chart at a massive multinational corporation, chances are that the bulk of your job consists of communicating with others, most often in writing. Of course there’s email and the traditional business letter, but most business people are also called on to write presentations, memos, proposals, business requirements, training materials, promotional copy, grant proposals, and a wide range of other documents.

Here’s the rub: most business people have little experience with writing. While those with business degrees probably did a bit of writing in school, it’s rarely stressed in business programs, and learning to write well is hardly the driving force behind most people’s desire to go to business school. Those without a university background might have never been pushed to write at all, at least since public school.

If you’re one of the many people in business for whom writing has never been a major concern, you should know that a lack of writing skills is a greater and greater handicap with every passing year. Spending some time to improve your writing can result in a marked improvement in your hireability and promotional prospects. There’s no substitute for practice, but here are a few pointers to put you on the right track.

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1. Less is more.

In business writing as in virtually every other kind of writing, concision matters. Ironically, as written information becomes more and more important to the smooth functioning of businesses, people are less and less willing to read. Increasingly, magazines and other outlets that used to run 2,000-word features are cutting back to 500-word sketches. Use words  sparingly, cut out the florid prose, and avoid long, meandering sentences. As Zorro taught his son, “Get in, make your Z, and get out!” – get straight to the point, say what you want to say, and be done  with it.

2. Avoid jargon.

Everyone in business hates business writing, all that “blue-sky solutioneering” and those “strategical synergies” that ultimately, mean nothing; “brainstorming” and “opportunities to work together” are more meaningful without sounding ridiculous. While sometimes jargon is unavoidable – in a business requirement document or technical specification, for example – try using plainer language. Even for people in the same field as you, jargon is often inefficient – the eye slides right past it without really catching the meaning. There’s a reason that jargon is so often used when a writer wants to not say anything.

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3. Write once, check twice.

Proofread immediately after you write, and then again hours or, better yet, days later. Nothing is more embarrassing than a stupid typo in an otherwise fine document. It’s hardly fair – typos happen! – but people judge you for those mistakes anyway, and harshly. Except in the direct emergency, always give yourself time to set your writing aside and come back to it later. The brain is tricky and will ignore errors that  it’s just made; some time working on something else will give you the detachment you need to catch those errors before anyone else reads them.

4. Write once, check twice.

I know, I just said this, but I mean something else here. In addition to catching typos and other errors, putting some time between writing and re-reading your work can help you catch errors of tone that might otherwise escape you and cause trouble. For instance, when we’re upset or angry, we often write things we don’t actually want anyone else to read. Make sure your work says what you want it to say, how you want it to say it, before letting it reach its audience.

5. Pay special attention to names, titles, and genders.

OK, there is one thing more embarrassing than a typo: calling Mr. Smith “Ms. Smith” consistently throughout a document. If you’re not positive about the spelling of someone’s name, their job title (and what it means), or their gender, either a) check with someone who does know (like their assistant), or b) in the case of gender, use gender-neutral language. “They” and “their” are rapidly becoming perfectly acceptable gender-neutral singular pronouns, despite what your grammar teacher and the self-righteous grammar nazi down the hall might say.

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6. Save templates.

Whenever you write an especially good letter, email, memo, or other document, if there’s the slightest chance you’ll be writing a similar document in the future, save it as a template for future use. Since rushing through writing is one of the main causes of typos and other errors, saving time by using a pre-written document can save you the  embarrassment of such errors. Just make sure to remove any specific information – names, companies, etc. – before re-using it – you don’t want to send a letter to Mr. Sharif that is addressed to Mrs. O’Toole!

7. Be professional, not necessarily formal.

There’s a tendency to think of all business communication as formal, which isn’t necessary or even very productive. Formal language is fine for legal documents and job applications, but like jargon often becomes invisible, obscuring rather than revealing its meaning. At the same time, remember that informal shouldn’t mean unprofessional – keep the personal comments, off-color jokes, and snarky gossip out of your business communications. Remember that many businesses (possibly yours) are required by law to keep copies of all correspondence – don’t email, mail, or circulate anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable having read into the record in a public trial.

8. Remember the 5 W’s (and the H)

Just like a journalist’s news story, your communications should answer all the questions relevant to your audience: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? For example, who is this memo relevant to, what should they know, when and where will it apply, why is it important, and how should they use this information? Use the 5W+H formula to try to anticipate any questions your readers might ask, too.

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9. Call to action.

The content of documents that are simply informative are rarely retained very well. Most business communication is meant to achieve some purpose, so make sure they include a call to action – something that the reader is expected to do. Even better, something the reader should do right now. Don’t leave it to your readers to decide what to do with whatever information you’ve provided – most won’t even bother, and enough of the ones who do will get it wrong that you’ll have a mess on your hands before too long.

10. Don’t give too many choices.

Ideally, don’t give any. If you’re looking to set a time for a meeting, give a single time and ask them to confirm or present a different time. At most, give two options and ask them to pick one. Too many choices often leads to decision paralysis, which generally isn’t the desired effect.

11. What’s in it for your readers?

A cornerstone of effective writing is describing benefits, not features. Why should a reader care? For example, nobody cares that Windows 7 can run in 64-bit mode – what they care about is that it can handle more memory and thus run faster than the 32-bit operating system. 64-bits is a feature; letting me get my work done more quickly is the benefit. Benefits engage readers, since they’re naturally most concerned with finding out how they can make their lives easier or better.

12. Hire a freelancer.

Not a writing tip per se, I know, but good advice nonetheless. Writing is most likely not your strong suit – if it’s important, hire someone for whom writing is their strong suit. You may think freelancers are only for marketing material, but that’s not true – a good freelance writer can produce memos, training manuals, internal letters, corporate newsletters, blog posts, wiki entries, and just about any other kind of writing you can think of. Depending on your needs, you can farm work out as needed or move a freelancer into a cubicle on-site, or work out whatever other arrangements best fit your needs. Expect to pay at least $30 an hour, and more likely $50 – $125 an hour, for good writing – anyone who charges less is either not very good, or not very business savvy. (These rates are for writers in US metro areas – rates may differ in other parts of the world.)

Great writing may require a talent that few of us have, but effective writing is a learnable skill. If your business writing isn’t up to snuff, follow the tips above and see if you can’t improve it. If your writing does pass muster, how about leaving a tip or two in the comments below?

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Last Updated on November 5, 2019

12 Powerful Habits of a Lifelong Learner

12 Powerful Habits of a Lifelong Learner

Formal education is something everyone has to go through to a certain degree, and the knowledge it offers isn’t always that practical in real life. Life long learning is how you improve as a person, bit by bit and day by day.

Life long learners recognize the importance and joy of growth so they never settle for what they currently know and always seek for improvement.

Here are 12 habits of people who value lifelong learning have in common – see how many of them you recognize in yourself.

1. They Read on a Daily Basis

Whatever problem or dilemma you currently face, there’s definitely at least one decent book that discusses it and presents a variety of solutions.

Reading is a great way to open up new horizons, train your brain and revolutionize your life. I can’t even count how many times books completely transformed the way I view the world, and it’s always a change for the better. Through reading, you can connect with successful people and learn from the lessons they share.

Life long learners love to get lost in books and do it regularly. Bill Gates knows that reading matters a lot; on his personal blog, he reviews plenty of game-changing books.

Due to technology, you can access a bookshelf of the wealthiest entrepreneur on this planet.

2. They Attend Various Courses

Whether it’s online or offline, there are countless courses you can participate in without spending a dime on it. These are great opportunities to connect with clever and like-minded people and learn from them.

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Because of the advanced technology, you can now gain knowledge from online programs, starting from coding through self-improvement to programs from top universities.

There are literally endless ways to thrive. What life long learners have in common is squeezing as much as possible out of these opportunities.

3. They Actively Seek Opportunities to Grow

Instead of spending your free time laying on the couch and watching TV, you prefer doing something creative and practical. You know every wasted minute is gone forever.

That’s why you’d rather practice your language skills with a native-speaker you’ve met, engage in local meet up or attend a class that teaches something you always wanted to learn.

Life long learners stay up-to-date with growth opportunities in their areas and participate in them frequently.

4. They Take Care of Their Bodies

“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” — John F. Kennedy

A clever mind combined with a body in a great condition is the best asset you can have. Our bodies were designed to run, walk, jump, swim, lift and much more. Leading a sedentary lifestyle harms both your physical and mental sphere.

Life long learners know the body is your temple. In order to make it flourish for as long as possible, they train regularly, move a lot and eat healthy.

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5. They Have Diverse Passions

Among Steve Jobs’ wise quotes, there’s one I like especially. It’s about connecting the dots:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” — Steve Jobs

Each dot is some event or skill in your life, and it’s only when you go through these elements that you know how to combine them into something great.

Having a variety of passions indicates that you love to progress. By practicing different skills, you give yourself an advantage over the rest of the people. During hard times, you are more likely to to act intelligently and solve your problems with less effort.

6. They Love Making Progress

If behind the efforts, there is passion and a deep desire to grow, your chances of success are way higher, compared to when you are forced to learn.

Life long learners love to experience the constant growth and improvement. The breakthrough moments help them to notice the impressive change that took place because of the learning process. Any milestone serves as a driving force for further headway.

7. They Challenge Themselves with Specific Goals

In order to keep growing, you clearly define your goals. Smart goal setting is one of the tools to ensure constant growth.

Since you love challenges, a difficult goal doesn’t scare you. Quite the opposite, it keeps you motivated and engaged.

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Research showed that precise and ambitious goals increase the performance of an individual. As we already agreed, life long learners are people who care about their performance, hence they never stop improving.

8. They Embrace Change

A complete change can lead to incredible results. This is especially visible on the example of successful companies.

Oftentimes, it’s that transformation which created space for their so-called overnight success. Twitter was originally created as an internal service to serve Odeo employees. Currently, it has over 300 million monthly active users and is considered the second biggest social network.

As a life long learner, you know a change can lead to extraordinary results so you welcome it and stay open minded about making a shift.

9. They Believe It’s Never Too Late to Start Something

Some people tend to think after a certain age, they are no longer allowed to start something and become successful. The truth is, it’s just a lame excuse not to leave the comfort zone.

Opposite to common misconceptions, there’s no wrong age to begin something. Henry Ford was 45 when he invented the Ford Model T car, which is considered as the first affordable automobile.

Sure, for some domains like becoming a professional athlete, starting early is required. However, to learn and improve for its own sake, you are never too old.

10. Their Attitude to Getting Better Is Contagious

“We now accept the fact that learning is a life long process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.” — Peter Drucker

There’s nothing better than to see your surroundings getting involved in what you actively participate in. Oftentimes, the best way to achieve that is to inspire them and be the example. As Gandhi would say, you need to be the change you want to see in the world.

As a life long learner, you are extremely passionate about the constant growth and people around you can sense that positive attitude. As a result, they start acting similarly.

11. They Leave Their Comfort Zone

Is it really better to step out of your comfort zone? The answer is always yes.

You always embrace discomfort as you know the path to success leads through hardship and countless obstacles. Instead of being afraid of facing them, you challenge yourself to overcome more and more difficult handicaps.

Every time you get out of your comfort zone, regardless whether you win or fail, you learn something new. That’s the part you love the most!

12. They Never Settle Down

“Knowledge is exploding, so you need to commit yourself to a plan for life long learning.” — Don Tapscott

A sense of being clever enough is something you don’t experience. Without a doubt, you appreciate what you already know, but that’s never a reason to stop. You just know once you stop learning, you lose the amazing privilege humans have, namely an ability to a never-ending intellectual development.

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Featured photo credit: Christin Hume via unsplash.com

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