1. “How can I improve my business writing?”
You can start by ignoring the standard advice—in favor of a psychologically astute approach to communication. Here are a few examples.
“You should think before you write.”
Doesn’t this sound more a warning to an impulsive child (as in “Look before you leap”) than usable, practical, adult writing advice?
Write first. You can think about—and edit—what you’ve written later.
Most professional writers have trained themselves to write first, using the technique of freewriting to get a rough draft on the page.
Freewriting is the opposite of merely thinking: when you freewrite, you simply set a timer for five minutes and write—preferably by hand—without pausing, and without thinking.
The result of your freewrite will not be finished text, but it’s likely to be surprisingly coherent. The reason is that writing is partly what psychologists call a “primary process”—an unconscious mental activity.
“You should learn to write better sentences.”
Go ahead and google “How to improve your business writing.” You’re likely to find this well-intentioned advice: “Knowing how to fashion an interesting and intelligent sentence is essential to communicating effectively.”
But what process, exactly, gets you to those socially acceptable sentences?
Ignore individual sentences when writing Drafts #1 and #2. Instead, focus on your concept and your content. Later, when you reach Draft #3 or so, you can edit on the sentence level, making your prose even more “intelligent” and elegant.
“Avoid jargon and ‘fancy’ words.”
This is curious advice. Who decides which words represent jargon, and which words are recognizable buzzwords for your audience?
Adjust your vocabulary to your audience.
Who is your audience? What do they typically read? How do they speak? Which words do they search on?
The answers to these questions determine how general—versus how specialized and technical—your vocabulary needs to be.
For example, let’s say you’re writing copy for a mask manufacturer on the volcanic island of Mount Etna. This company’s masks can protect the wearer from contracting the lung disease caused by inhaling the fine dust spewed by the volcano.
Audience A for your copy is consumers. To them, you would write something like, “These masks help protect you from inhaling the dangerous, super-fine silicone particles spewed by Mount Etna.”
Audience B is medical doctors with family practices. You would likely use a somewhat more specialized word to refer to the lung disease: “These masks can help protect your patients from silicosis.”
Audience C is the most specialized, expert, and technically oriented group: pulmonologists who will attend the 13th Annual Congress on Pulmonology & Respiratory Medicine. To them, you would write, “Dr. Biden will present a paper on the relationship between mask-wearing and contracting pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” Pneumonoultramicro- scopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is the longest word in any standard English-language dictionary. Arguably, it’s a “fancy” word. In this context, though, it’s the right word—and the only word—for the job.
“Use words sparingly and keep sentences short and to the point.”
Your goal is to adjust your content and vocabulary—as well as your sentence length—to your audience. Not every audience can be satisfied by short, direct sentences. For example, when writing text for members of The International Society for Phenomenological Studies, your sentences are unlikely to be little. The danger of writing a too-short sentence: being reductionistic.
Keep in mind that direct sentences usually evolve from long, sprawling sentences. So, try freewriting first, and write as long and as verbosely as you can. That way, you’ll have more material to condense.
2. “My boss rewrites all of my work. What can I do about it?”
The first question is, does your boss’s rewrite improve your text or disimprove it?
If the rewrites consistently improve your writing, then you may be getting on-the-job writing-training. As long as your boss uses Track Changes—and make a few top-line comments about the rationale for changing your original draft—you’ll be able to learn more about revision technique.
If the boss’s rewrites disimprove your work, you may need to understand why this is happening before you decide what, if anything, to do about it.
Some people rewrite text because they want it to sound like their voice, with their signature rhythms and phrases—and they want credit and/or a byline. In this case, you can think of yourself as a ghostwriter who submits a draft and then relinquishes control. If seeing your text rewritten on a regular basis makes you feel like an apparatchik, you can either push back, or you can look for another job.
3. “English isn’t my native language. To improve my business writing, should I study English, or should I study writing?”
You know what I’m going to say: why not study writing? You can passively and actively increase your knowledge of English as a language by studying writing, so why not aim high?
4. “How do I stop procrastinating and start writing?”
- Switch off your phone and your laptop.
- Grab a piece of paper and a pen.
- Write down a working title—something clear, blunt, ordinary, that states your subject, like “Ten Reasons to Use Crest Toothpaste,” or “New Obstacles for the Automotive Industry”—whatever.
- Set an egg timer for 10 minutes.
- Write as quickly as you can, with pausing.
- When the timer rings, leave your desk and do something physical and repetitive for 5 minutes: wash a few dishes, fold some laundry, sort through a pile of mail into 3 categories: Keep, Toss, and Shred….
- Go back to the page. Re-set the timer for another 10 minutes. Copy the last sentence of what you’ve already written, and continue writing from there.
5. “Over the last five years, I’ve carefully crafted the voice of our brand. How do I get all members of my team to write in that voice?”
Write a copy platform, and if you don’t have time for that, a one-page set of editorial guidelines. Hold an editorial meeting to make sure everyone agrees with the guidelines. If you don’t have time for this, consider organizing a workshop to get it done.
Let your team know that you need them to attend the workshop—and to contribute. Consider reassuring them that the experience won’t be a group-think or an exercise in writing-by-committee. The Copy Platform workshop is the next step in getting everyone pointed in the same direction: using similar-enough key messages and similar-enough language, without inhibiting personal writing styles.