Writing is a central skill for many jobs. Emails to clients, reporting results, sharing progress updates, offering feedback, writing proposals, creating marketing copy and technical instructions are just some of the countless ways that the written word helps businesses communicate.
Clarity is key for understanding, while quality and professionalism give your reader a sense of your competence and attitude. Sending clients sloppy work with a lot of errors will make them wonder what other mistakes you’ll make if you work with them.
Well written effective business writing doesn’t just happen. There’s a process of planning, creation and quality assurance. Like all skills, some people initially find it easier than others, but by following these steps, anyone can produce high quality written work.
Know your purpose
Before you get anywhere near your keyboard (or pen, if you’re still into the classics), ask yourself a few questions. The first, and most important, is what are you trying to achieve? What do you want a reader to get from your work?
Is your goal to inform, instruct, explain, persuade or something else? This can radically change what and how you write. It affects content, length, tone and style. It’s your roadmap for everything you’re going to write. Without this, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
If someone looks at a formal report, they’ll expect a certain level of detail. However, a colleague receiving a short internal update on a project probably doesn’t need much more than a few lines outlining what’s been done and what’s happening next.
Know your audience
Tied very closely with purpose is audience. Ask yourself a similar set of questions – who are you writing for? What do they want to get out of it? What are their expectations? Who else is likely to read it?
Consider who they are, their level of understanding of the topic and jargon, why they’d read this and what their priorities will be. It’s important to determine the appropriate tone and level of formality to take.
These first two steps are things most of us subconsciously do all the time. We change how we talk and write all the time. For example, you probably wouldn’t text a friend to make social plans in the same tone as you’d email a potential client asking for a meeting.
Gather your content
Now you can start getting the content together. If it’s something short and simple, you might just think of a few quick bullet points. If it’s a longer and more complex document, you might need to set aside significant time to pull together all your research and information. This could take the form of rough, handwritten notes or a full document of quotes, data and brainstorming.
Try out different methods until you find what works best for you. This unorganised mass of content doesn’t need to be pretty, it’s for your eyes only and is going to be sorted into a proper order afterwards. For now, just get it all together.
Throughout this process, keep referring back to the intended outcomes and existing knowledge of your intended audience, thinking about what content is and isn’t required to satisfy their needs. If you’re informing or explaining, make sure you include the appropriate information, without adding irrelevant detail that dilutes your message. If your aim is to instruct, make sure you include clear action points and next steps.
Establish a structure
Once you know what you’re going to include, you need to figure out how to put it together in a clear and logical way. Your structure acts as the backbone of your readers’ journey, getting them from A to B in a way that’s easy to follow.
Decide on your key points and central themes, as well as the right order to introduce information so your readers aren’t overwhelmed or are assumed to know something that’s explained later on. Don’t throw too much at your reader at once. Whether you decide to break your work up with paragraphs, sections, chapters or as multiple documents, putting the content into manageable chunks will help people take it all in.
Use this time to also plan out your opening – which sets the tone, grabs attention and outlines the core messages – and the ending – with a summary of the key takeaways.
Write your first draft
It’s finally time to actually get writing. After planning your content and structure, you’re in a much better position to create something that’s coherent and impactful.
A good formula for writing is that every key point should be backed up with evidence and an explanation of why it’s important to the overall purpose of the document.
The magic of modern technology is that you don’t need to work in order. If the empty white screen on your laptop is intimidating and you don’t know how to start it off, don’t be afraid to jump into the middle with whichever section feels easiest. Your structure will help you put it in order at the end.
Remember, your first draft doesn’t need to be your final one. There’ll be time to proofread, edit, take things out and put things back in. For now, just get your words down on the page.
Keep it easy to understand
You could say that it’s paramount for your documentation of written words to be comprehensible, unambiguous and enthralling for every potential individual that perceives your composition. Or, you could simply say that it’s important for readers to understand your work. Reaching for the thesaurus or using high-level jargon can feel like it’s improving your writing when all it’s really doing is making your readers work harder.
The best writing, regardless of context or content, should gently guide the reader, making it easy for them. You’re not trying to show off your vocabulary and they’re not sitting a comprehension exam, they just want the information. If in doubt, read it out loud to see how it flows and whether your key points are properly signposted.
Engage with the readers
Just because it’s written to sound professional, doesn’t mean it has to be dull. Make it engaging, so it keeps attention. The tone you take makes a big difference for how it comes across to the reader, for example assertive language, such as “I will” rather than “I might” creates a more active voice.
Descriptive adjectives can bring data alive. Control the pace by using short, snappy sentences and longer ones. Use paragraphs and subheadings to break up different points. Even a potentially quite dry report full of data can be turned into a fascinating read with the right approach.
Even how you use same method of communication can change depending on who you’re talking to. You’ll probably adopt a more familial tone of voice when messaging close friends, but you shouldn’t be quite so casual when sending your manager message on Teams.
Check your work
The end of the first draft is absolutely not the end of the writing process. Reviewing is an important method for ensuring your work achieves your desired purpose, is accurate and doesn’t have any minor mistakes or typos. There are several questions to ask yourself:
Is everything factually correct? Have you included everything you wanted? Should anything be removed? Does anything need referencing or additional explanations?
Think back to your purpose and your audience. Does what you’ve written achieve the goal of informing/persuading/reporting/entertaining etc.? Is the language and style appropriate for the people reading it? Is it the right level of formal or casual? Does the structure and flow take the reader clearly and logically from A to B?
Present it well
The way your work is presented affects how your audience approaches it. Opening a document and seeing a huge amount of text elicits very different feelings from when it’s broken up with headings, charts and images.
Pick a clear and appropriate font, size and colour for both text and headings. Then consider the layout on the page. Yet again, let your purpose and audience guide you. Using too many fonts and colours can make a formal document look juvenile, but a black and white flyer probably won’t attract your clients.
Check if your organisation has templates or house styles for you to use. There is likely to be a style guide for fonts, branded headed paper, email signatures and much more.
While many find proofreading a tedious and easily skipped over part of the process, it’s absolutely essential. Even if your content and design are amazing, sloppy mistakes and typos undermine your work, subconsciously making readers question your abilities or commitment. Proofreading means reading through your work slowly and carefully to check all the language, grammar and punctuation.
Think about the level of formality. Official documents don’t usually use contractions (such as “shouldn’t” or “it’s”) though many organisations now take a relaxed approach to this friendlier style – whichever you use, be consistent!
If you’ve got the time, it’s a good idea to take a break to view the document (especially longer ones) with fresh eyes. Also, getting a colleague or friend to read it will give you a second opinion and they may spot something you didn’t.
A full checklist for language and grammar would fill an article on its own (or several years of high school English classes), but here are a few common mistakes to be aware of.
• To show possession. E.g. “That is Sharon’s laptop.”
• To show joint possession by multiple people or a group. E.g. “ I listened to the managers’ ideas.”
• To indicate a contraction. E.g. “Haven’t/Won’t/Didn’t”
• “Its” is possessive. E.g. “The company and its employees.”
• “It’s” is a contraction of “It is.” E.g. “It’s nice to see you.”
• “Your” is possessive. E.g. “I read your report.”
• “You’re” is a contraction of “You are.” E.g. “Let me know when you’re free.”
• “There” refers to a place. E.g. “He’s sitting over there.”
• “Their” is possessive. E.g. “I liked their ideas.”
• “They’re” is a contraction of “They are.” E.g. “They’re running late.”
Other important notes
• Commas break up clauses in a sentence and break up a list
• Always use capital letters to start a sentence and for names of people or organisations
Many people find writing a daunting experience. Some career paths have more of it than others, but it’s hard to avoid it forever. By following these simple steps – considering why you’re writing, planning it out properly, writing with a clear structure and reviewing it carefully – you’ll always create something well thought out and engaging to read.
To learn more tips for better written and verbal communication skills, take a look at our Learning Solutions.