How many business documents do UK companies produce each week? Think about the countless emails; the proposals for clients; the reports for management; the plans for colleagues. Whether by necessity or desire, we are a nation of prolific business writers.
Quality is essential; quantity is preferable. So, with this in mind, is the content weare producing actually any good? The sad truth is that many companies appear resigned to wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds each year while their employees struggle for hours to produce badly written, poorly structured documents. Worse still is that much of this content doesn’t ever get read.
It is very easy to make a hash of business writing. Reports and proposals are often written in a hurry, cobbled together at the last minute – with little thought about the impression they will give or the impact they will make.
Time pressures and stress levels are not always avoidable however, and there is no real reason why people should be able to write well. Writing is a skill that needs to be learnt like any other, but even the most reluctant writers can improve their business documents by learning to avoid the most common mistakes which are listed below:
1. Typos, poor punctuation and grammatical errors
Avoid careless mistakes at all costs. They say, ‘This person can’t write’ or, ‘This person doesn’t care enough to check what they’ve written’. And often they result in a client questioning how much care you will take with their business. Read through everything. Check and then recheck and then ask a colleague to check again. Sub editing is difficult and another set of eyes often spots something that you haven’t.
2. Management speak and buzz words
People are tired of reading about ‘synergy’ and ‘high performance’. ‘Cutting edge’ or ‘innovative’ products and services are two-a-penny these days, so these words are a real turn off. Create jargon-free documents that are useful and speak directly to your reader. Explain any acronyms and outline any terms. It is a myth that a reader feels patronised by explanations – readers feel empowered by the reiteration of terms they may already know.
3. Forgetting the reader
Rather than just focusing on ‘getting it written’, spare a thought for the poor reader first. What information do they want; in what form; with how much detail? What is the main message to leave them with? Plan and structure your document based on what the client needs. Only then should you begin to write it.
4. Long words and elaborate phrases
These are not a sign of intellect and your readers are far too busy to spend time deciphering them. Who wants to translate complicated words and phrases before they can start to understand the main message? Clear and concise content gets a message across. Be blunt, keep your work simple and stick to the point. Intellectual doesn’t have to mean incomprehensible.
5. Complex sentences
People do not give business documents their undivided attention. Chances are they will have other things on their mind, so help them out by avoiding long complicated sentences that they have to keep re-reading. Write clear and straight forward sentences and avoid unnecessary punctuation, which may trip the reader up.
6. Poor planning
It doesn’t matter how tight the deadlines are, time spent planning is never wasted. The temptation to start writing immediately may be strong, but the result is often lengthy and muddled content that may quickly be discarded. Decide what information is essential, what information is desirable and what information is not necessary. Then prioritise your work in that order.
7. Failing to make an impression
A strong introduction will grab the reader’s attention; a good conclusion will leave a lasting impact. Many people start their document in the middle, promising themselves that they will write the introduction later. Even more absurdly, conclusions are often left out completely. The introduction and the conclusion are the most crucial parts of any document: don’t ignore them.
8. Too much text
White space is good; it makes a document appear easier to read. Ideally a document should be 50 per cent text and 50 per cent images or white space. Too much text, a bad choice of fonts and font size as well as insufficient line spacing can prevent a reader from reading content. Like the content, the font and overall look of a document should make it as easy-to-read as possible. San serif fonts such as Arial, for example, make larger bodies of text easier to read.
Certain abbreviations and acronyms may be acceptable and common knowledge within an organisation, but don’t take it for granted that anyone outside the organisation will understand them. Many writers worry about patronising their clients. Clarity and explanation is not patronising – it is both empowering and makes a document easier and more enjoyable to read.
10. Being vague
Quantify statements wherever possible. Don’t make claims like, ‘It is widely understood that…’ Say who understands it. Specify how much money a company has made. Vague statements lack impact and are open to misinterpretation.
A document that is written badly can irritate colleagues and clients; fail to galvanise
people; damage the reputation of an organisation; and may even lose business.
Conversely, a well-written document is a critical business tool: it can demonstrate
expertise and knowledge; influence decision making; win new business and help to build
a brand. Words are a highly usable tool. An idea or solution is pointless if you haven’t got
the tools to communicate it effectively. Take your time, follow our steps and ensure your
content is read.
About the Author:
Emphasis Training is the name behind some of the best business writing skills in the UK. As the country’s leading business-writing consultancy, we’ve helped hundreds of its most successful organisations to gain maximum impact from their written communications, through bespoke, in-house training , open (public) courses and business-writing consultancy.