Writing Misconceptions

You probably haven’t received any training in writing since you were in school. And that instruction probably didn’t prepare you for writing business pieces, such as reports, marketing materials or articles for your company’s website. Academic papers and essays follow a structure that starts with a statement of purpose or a thesis, followed by support of the thesis, methodology and results, and a conclusion. Business writing, by contrast, opens with the conclusion – a statement of the benefits of your proposal.

Novice writers share certain tendencies, including adopting a formal tone, copying someone else’s writing style and using big words when common words read more fluidly, like saying “endeavor” instead of “try.” Stay true to your voice. Use natural, conversational words. Your goal is to keep people reading to the end of your piece, so your writing must engage your audience.

“Finding the right words, deciding their best order, making them grab the reader and polishing your text, can all be surprisingly hard work.”

Getting Started

Plan your article. Starting without thinking through your writing strategy is like cooking without reading the recipe; you might discover you’re missing key ingredients halfway through. Define your objectives and your target audience. For example, magazines develop “readership profiles,” sketches of the person they wish to address. These profiles include the reader’s age, interests, occupation, level of education, and the like. Clarify what you want your writing to encourage readers to do, such as fill out a coupon, buy a ticket or visit a web page. Do you want your writing to prompt a purchase, affect someone’s viewpoint or make a claim? Compose a brief outline for anything longer than 300 words. Work out the order and intent of each paragraph or section.

“However unpleasant the feedback pill might be, think how much worse the experience would be if any of your mistakes were shared with a wider audience.”

Before you write, gather and organize relevant material, research and references. Choose the times and places that work best for you. That may be at the kitchen table, in a busy office or in a coffee shop. Clear away distractions, set your to-do list aside and focus on the task at hand. Note writing styles you enjoy and find inspiration in other writers’ work. Break longer projects into manageable pieces so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

Readers First

Write with your audience’s perspective in mind. Many writers erroneously prioritize their organizations’ attributes instead of focusing on the subjects that matters most to their customers. Enable your readers to find the information that addresses their needs. Lists such as “Five Benefits of Sponsorship” or “Five Reasons for Choosing Us” make advice easy to find. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Consider the medium people will be using. The writing on a web page should differ from the writing in a newspaper or magazine.

Your home page “should be like a shop window: enticing people to come in…and then quickly directing them to the pages with the information they are looking for.”

Marketing messages bombard people every day. Standing out from the clutter is a challenge. One technique is to link your message to something topical – an issue or story that is already top-of-mind. Appeal to people’s emotions by showing how your product or service solves a problem, addresses a fear, fulfills a dream or makes someone feel loved.

“Your document should be like a straight-running river – rather than a stream that meanders here and there, loses its direction, and has eddies and backwaters that go nowhere.”

“KISS”

KISS is an acronym for “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” or the friendlier “Keep It Short and Simple.” That is the foundation of effective writing for business. Be concise, use familiar language and get to the point quickly. The choices you make while writing communicate a certain tone of voice and highlight your organization’s values. Make it clear that you’re “honest, friendly and principled” or “reliable, proactive and knowledgeable.” Writing styles range from formal to informal, familiar to reserved, and energetic to restrained. Your vocabulary and grammar contribute to your writing’s mood.

Focus on the rhythm and cadence of your writing by varying your sentence length and noticing how your words sound when you read them aloud. Long sentences connote an academic bent, while short sentences are more conversational. Avoid overusing contractions and abbreviations as well as visual sentence dividers, such as dashes and colons. Learn the difference between active and passive voice. Active voice tells readers “who did what.” “The committee presented a report” is active voice. “A report was presented by the committee” is passive. While active voice is preferable, use passive when you don’t want to attribute an action to particular party, as in, “A man has been shot in the park.”

“People who spend millions on advertising need to really know their audience if their advertisements are going to work.”