Business writing – Where it goes wrong
Having worked closely alongside businesses for years, to help them improve their writing (in training and consultancy sessions), I have a good insight into where I think some people can go wrong with their writing.
I am not being picky. I don’t mean what they write, and if they make grammatical mistakes, or use wrong punctuation, etc. I mean HOW they approach and CARRY OUT writing tasks, how they execute them, and how this makes their writing get tangled up and go off the rails – as in this picture.
Here are the 6 ways I think business writing goes wrong, which you can remember as not being: B-O-S-S-I-E.
B = Bad beginning
When a reader first starts reading a piece of text – be it a company brochure, website, report, or whatever – their attention is at its greatest. Which means your first sentence and your first paragraph are absolutely vital … for hooking their interest and persuading them to keep reading. So, those first sentences need to be written really really really well – spot on for the job at hand. Original, engaging and interesting.
O = Objective is wrong
How often do you read on a company website the date that the business was set up? Too often, in my view. The mindset of many businesses is focused on writing content they think will impress their readers (such as when it was founded), whereas it should be focused on how to grab people, and how to keep them interested and engaged. Clearly there are places for spelling out the corporate stuff, but businesses usually give this too much prominence. The year you were founded is not interesting to most readers. Agreed?
S = Structure doesn’t engage
The challenge of writing is not just getting down what you want to say, clearly and succinctly – although that can be hard with complex issues, and when you are not thinking straight (yes, we all have off-days). The challenge is working out the structure that will best win readers’ attention, keep them reading, and get them to do whatever it is you want – be it persuading them of an argument, demonstrating your expertise, or convincing them to buy something. This requires having a really good and thought-out structure. Which means planning your content carefully … and long before you pick up a pen.
S = Stuffed with edits
In a workplace, it is common for a document to be drafted by one person – maybe two – then submitted to another, and then to a manger. Now, there is no problem with people sharing ideas and collating views beforehand. But when a completed document is passed around the houses, what typically happens is that additional phrases get inserted, sentences get longer and longer, and as a result some become awkward .. and even impossible to understand. Repetitions and mistakes can also creep in, and different styles of writing.
No wonder that on a training course I was once asked: ‘Can a documented be over-edited?’ The delegate had a point. And the lesson/my answer: too many chefs spoil your final text.
I = Influences may be negative
We learn how to communicate from the people around us. A baby learns to talk from its parents, siblings and carers; and a young child learns to write from the language, words and writing styles around them. But in the process we absorb both positive and negative impacts.
For example, solicitors’ style of writing, with long sentences and little punctuation (done for legal reasons, but hard to follow), is influenced by the style of writing they encounter in their studies. Sadly, it is not written for explaining things clearly to clients, but for standing up to scrutiny by their peers.
But solicitors aren’t the only ones at fault. All businesses could benefit from stepping outside the bad writing practices of their company and/or profession (in my case it was working in a council for four years) and cutting out the bad practices such as passives, long sentences, and jargon/clichés etc. from their text.
I like to read The Economist magazine. Why? Because its style is informative, succinct and engaging – which is what I want my writing to be. My lesson to you is: ‘Read writing that you admire and that uses the style in which you want to write.’
E = Essentials should be the focus (focus on quality content)
I feel lucky that I trained as a journalist. Why? Partly because it makes me aware of all the issues above, but in particular because it makes me aware of the need to keep to content that is essential. Let me explain. If an editor commissions say 800 words from a journalist, they don’t want 816 words, nor 783. They have a space of 800 words to fill, and they don’t want to have to add/subtract words to get the piece to fit.
This means that, as a journalist writes, they are used to weighing up whether to include (or not) each sentence, phrase – and even particular words. They keep to the essentials. They don’t waffle or go off topic; they don’t become boring nor repetitive. They can’t afford to; they don’t have the space. It also means they are not precious about their writing; they learn to be ruthless when editing their text. Everything that is written has to merit inclusion for the topic, space and job in hand.
My lesson for you is that this is a mindset many businesses would benefit from in their writing. Indeed, a good quote I read recently was: ‘Don’t worry about your word count, focus on the word CUT.’