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PRODUCTIVITY

7 Quick Tips for Better Business Writing

Want your words to wow? Take this basic advice to write more effective emails, memos, and other professional materials.
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I took many writing classes in college but perhaps the most useful was one focused on business writing. My classmates and I spent a semester editing example after example of rambling or confusing letters, memos, and other professional materials. Here are seven bits of simple advice for clear and concise writing.

1. Limit prepositions when possible.

If you don't remember what they are, here's a list and primer. When overused, prepositions can weaken writing and contribute to wordiness. For example: "The meeting on December 1 about the budget" is sharper when written "The December 1 budget meeting." Also watch out for prepositions following a verb, such as "come up with" or "find out." Instead, you could use "generate" or "determine," respectively.

2. Avoid "very."

It smacks of laziness and indicates your sentence needs editing to pack a stronger punch. For example, consider: "The very tall man strode to the front of the line." The phrase "very tall" doesn't help a reader understand if the man is six feet tall or having to duck seven-foot doorways. How about: "Standing a head taller than everyone in the room the man strode to the front of the line." The second version paints a better picture, right?

3. Watch out for forms of the verb "to be" such as am, are, is, was, were, being, and been.

Usually you should aim for an active, not passive voice. "There are three things you can do to improve your golf game" is tighter when written "three things can improve your golf game."

4. Don't try to impress with jargon or big words.

Readers don't appreciate grandstanding but do value an unclouded message.

5. Use exclamation points sparingly.

Overusing them reduces their impact. And never use more than one at the end of a sentence.

"Elmore Leonard wrote of exclamation marks: 'You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.' Which means, on average, an exclamation mark every book and a half," points out Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian. "In the ninth book of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Eric, one of the characters insists that 'Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind.'"

6. Limit emails to five or fewer sentences.

"Seriously. I know it's painful. You have so many important things to say. However, getting it read is more important than getting all that explanation in there. Preferably, it's three sentences. Your goal is to make it easy for [a recipient] to respond immediately from his smartphone," advises 42Floors founder Jason Freedman.

7. Read it out loud.

Before delivering your writing to a recipient, read it out loud. Doing so will likely oust any typos, missing words, or other errors you may not have spotted.

IMAGE: Josh Blair/Flickr
Last updated: Dec 3, 2013




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