6 Tips for Improving Your Business Writing

Do you hate to write business letters? Do you spend a lot of time on each email only to receive slow or no responses? Use these six tips to develop a writing style that gets results.

One Letter One Subject

Each letter or email should address one issue only. You can always send another email to talk about a second subject. Keeping to one topic helps the reader absorb your point, and act.

Openers and Enders

Direct Marketing studies show that the most-read sentences in any letter are the first and last sentences (especially if that last sentence is a ‘P.S.’).

Make your purpose clear in the first sentence: “I am writing to share details about the Jones project”.

After that you can introduce background information, but do not start there. People are busy. Tell them what they are going to read about, in the first sentence.

Recap your purpose at the end of the letter, and use the last sentence to ask for an action: “Please let me know by Friday…”.

Bullet Points

Use bullet points to catch the reader’s eye as she is skimming down the page (between the first and last sentences).

  • Bullet points catch the eye
  • They summarize the details
  • Use sentence fragments to keep them brief
  • Use only 3-5 bullet points

Be Informal

Unless you are writing for a scientific journal or your industry has a very formal style (i.e. law), keep your style informal. Use ‘you’ and ‘I’ instead of writing in the passive voice. For example, say “We decided at last week’s meeting to push forward with…” instead of “A meeting was held and it was decided that…”. Conversational language keeps a document livelier-and readers awake.

Keep It Brief

Try to keep documents to one page (or one screen, if email). People will read a short document immediately but put a long one in a ‘to read’ pile. Short communications also force you to keep to the point.

Edit out unnecessary words and repetition.

Don’t repeat yourself (like I just did).

Edit

Always leave time for editing. Re-read every piece of writing before you send it out, even quick emails. Edit out half your words if possible. Seriously.

Don’t rely on your spell-checker. I almost proposed giving a talk on “Sex Tips For Better Business Writing” to my local Chamber of Commerce. Luckily that is one of those errors that leaps off the page, but the spell checker didn’t catch it!

Find someone else to proofread your work or use these copyeditor’s tips: slowly read your work aloud once to make sure there are no missing or incorrect words. Then read the work backwards to look for spelling errors. Reading backwards helps you see typos.

Always carefully check these typo hot-spots check:

  • telephone numbers
  • zip codes
  • names

Also check for ‘smart quotes’ that are turned around the wrong way, and missing punctuation.

Use these six tips to develop a clear, concise and correct business writing style. You will endear yourself to busy colleagues, and start to see improved response rates to your communications.

P.S. Contact me if you need a copy editor. (See what I mean about the P.S.?)

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Are You Sure That’s What You Mean?

YOU MAY KNOW what you mean, but are you really saying it? These advertisers left things a little up in the air:

Kenney Shoe Stores: We only sell the right shoe.

Law firm ad: If you have experienced accident, injury or even death, call us…

Sexual harassment seminar ad: Experts will define issues, clarify laws, and conduct hands-on training.

We’ve upped our standards. Up Yours.

Sale: All furniture slashed!

Use [our medicine], and you can kiss your hemorrhoids goodbye!

________

Proof that it’s never a bad idea to hire a professional writer to help you say what you REALLY mean.

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Better Business Writing: First Drafts & Revisions

IF A DOCUMENT is worth writing, it’s worth writing twice.

Although science fiction author Robert Heinlein famously claimed never to rewrite anything, he must be the only successful writer who can make that claim.

If you find it difficult to write well, remember that a first draft is just that. The trick to good writing is to dash off a fast first draft that captures the spirit of what you want to say. Don’t worry about spelling, structure or even perfect grammar. Now leave the piece for as long as possible. Then come back and re-read it.

Is the purpose of the communication clear? Write a sentence at the top that expresses that purpose, then rearrange the meat of your first draft below it. Cut out any repetition and tighten up long sentences. Summarize the main points in a final sentence, then tell the reader what you want them to do (e.g. “Call me with your opinions on this issue”).

If capturing a first draft on paper causes you trouble, try some different ways of marshalling your thoughts: draw a mind-map; make a list of bullet points; dictate your ideas into a voice recorder.

But always try to give yourself time to step away from your first draft and come back to it later. Good writing (and re-writing) takes time. As Pascal said, “This letter is long, because I did not have time to write a short one.”

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Is Your Website Wasted?

If Your Site Doesn’t Help Its Audience, It Is A Wasted Resource

AUDIENCE

Who is the audience for your website? You must know who will use it before you can design a useful site. Will your users be prospective clients or perhaps the press, both looking for information and ways to contact your company? Will your users be existing customers, who may need product support or ways to buy add-on services?

PURPOSE

1. What do you want from your website?

Is your website a tool to build your mailing list? If so, put a sign-up box on every page. Will it provide information on your services and products for prospective customers? Make the information clear and easy to find. Is the site’s purpose to sell products? Then make it easy for your customers to buy: invest in shopping cart support and put a ‘buy me’ button next to every item.

2. What do your customers want from your website?

Don’t forget to ask your existing customers (and your customer service staff) how the website might help them. Frequently Asked Questions and auto-responders that email information on request save time and money. Or perhaps your customers simply want a way to order more services.

GETTING THERE

Make it easy for your audience to find your site. Register a domain name that is easy to type. If your company name is long try a logical shortened form (e.g. BN.com instead of BarnesandNoble.com). Try not to use dashes (e.g. writing-world.com) because people will invariably forget to use them and end up at someone else’s site.

DESIGN

  • Less is more – in all design matters.
  • Navigation: don’t make visitors click through more than three levels to reach a page. Make sure your grandmother can find her way around your site. Could you use a blog or social networking site? Is that what your visitors are comfortable with?
  • Typography: Limit yourself to one or two fonts and colors.
  • Pictures: make sure pictures are no more than 72dpi and as small as possible for faster downloads.
    Animation: just say no!
  • Words: cut out half your text then cut out half again. People don’t read websites; they browse, looking for something to click on.

CHECKLIST

  1. Does your home page clearly explain what your business is and what customers can get from your site?
  2. Must-have pages: Home Page; Products & Services; About Us.
  3. Nice-to-have pages: Press Room; Testimonials; Feedback Form.
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