“The only kind of writing is rewriting” – Ernest Hemingway
Experienced communications professionals know that first drafts can never be final. They need editing. Writers are often so focused on content that they overlook basic weaknesses, which may detract from the message. Whether you work alone, or as part of a team, reading your own writing from the audience’s perspective will strengthen your piece before publication.
Business writing has a specific purpose: to communicate a corporate message. This writing must be clear, direct, and accessible to a wide audience. That last point is critical. The audience, not the writer, determines whether the writing is effective.
Start with a Solid Foundation
A good writer – and editor – approaches writing the way an architect designs a house; they start with a solid foundation, grounding their text in reason and logic.
Anticipate audience questions. Try to poke holes in your own arguments.
● Does the introduction tell the reader what will be discussed?
● Does each paragraph contain new, and necessary, information?
● Are examples illustrated so they are clear? Are these the strongest and simplest examples to support your message?
● Are there any assumptions that need to be deleted or supported?
● Have you ended with a recap of the central ideas?
By addressing these questions up front, you increase the chance that your arguments, and writing, can withstand scrutiny. Everyone may not agree with you but, like a well-built house weathers a storm, your writing is now watertight.
Choose the Right Tone
Mary Cullen, a professional writing coach, discusses the importance of tone in engaging an audience. If the tone leaves the content unclear, confusing or, worst case scenario, offensive, she writes, the reader won’t be able to properly absorb or react to the text.
First, keep your business writing simple and straightforward. When writing for a wide audience, use plain language. Define technical terms that are critical to understanding your points.
Second, be aware of your own cultural “blind spots.” Tone can become a problem if a writer tries to connect with the audience through jokes, cultural references, puns, or ironic language. Whilst all of these may work in limited circumstances, they carry a high risk of offending, alienating, or simply confusing some part of the audience. The goal is to be understood. Don’t take this risk.
The best way to spot tone problems is to have your writing read by a skilled editor who is trained to read inference as well as content and is not afraid to highlight potentially problematic or misleading language.
A Final Polish
Is your copy error-free? James W. Michaels, the late editor of Forbes, used to tell writers: “Don’t give anyone a stick to beat you with.”
Michaels never missed an opportunity to reinforce the point that factual mistakes destroy credibility. Even worse, factual mistakes cause readers to stop reading, and to seek other sources of information. Forbes, like its peer publications, employed fact-checkers to make sure that wouldn’t happen. No matter who does it, verifying all checkable facts is time well spent.
Producing error-free copies requires more than mere fact-checking; typos also distract readers. The problem is, when we reread our own writing, we know our intent. Our brain auto-corrects for spelling and grammar. Even computer software or online tools overlook a wrong word when it is spelled incorrectly, or they insert errors such as “it’s” for “its.” To force your brain to spot mistakes, read the draft aloud. If you stumble on your own words, you most likely have something to fix.
Lastly, keep in mind the following formula when writing:
Impact = Meaning / Number of Words
For an equal amount of meaning, dividing the word count in half doubles the impact. Before going to publication, reread your draft to kill needless words.
All Good Writing Starts with Clear Thinking
The 17th century French poet Nicolas Boileau famously stated, “If the idea is well conceived, it can be clearly written. And the words to express it will come easily.”
Business writing requires skills that are learned, practiced, and fine-tuned. This is no different than learning multiple languages or playing a musical instrument. Any natural ability one might have initially increases with practice.
Whether you work alone or as part of a team, you can train yourself to catch errors of omission and distraction that should never appear in professionally finished work. Bring a critical eye to the tone and internal logic of the writing. All of these strategies increase credibility for you, your message, and your organization.