It's a truth that goes unsaid: good business writing is fundamental if you want your company to get ahead. We use it every moment in emails, memos, proposals to clients. It's enough to make one wish for pointers from a master of precision and nuance: someone who understood the timeless rules of communication, regardless of time period.

I'm talking, of course, about Jane Austen, who wasn't one of Britain's greatest authors for nothing. Author of Emma, Persuasion, and Pride & Prejudice, she re-defined genres and was an expert at recognizing the subtleties in social interactions.

Here are three tips that she can teach us about the art of modern business writing.

1. Get the name, title, gender, and address of your audience right

In everything she wrote, Austen was acutely aware of social conventions and manners. Handily, this proves useful in business writing, since manners first and foremost mean getting the names, titles, and genders of your audience right. If it sounds simple, you'd be surprised at the number of people who commit seppuku in their business writing, just by mistakenly writing Mr. Smith instead of Ms. Smith.

While imparting writing advice to a niece, Austen said the following about the attention we should pay a person's address:

When Mr. Portman is first brought in, the man would not be introduced as His Honourable; that distinction is never mentioned at such times.

Lesson taught: understand who you're addressing in every situation. And do it from the get-go, because getting your names and titles right is a matter of basic courtesy.

In a business writing context, it's sometimes even best to stick to using the other's surname, as Emma in Austen's Emma does: "Impossible! - I never can call you any thing but 'Mr. Knightley'," Emma says, when Mr. Knightley asks why she cannot simply say, "George."

Granted, we're not in the 19th century anymore, and never moving past the surname is a tad strong. Still, it depends on the occasion and the tone you want to strike, which brings us to...

2. Don't be Mrs. Bennet

Unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Mrs. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice is 1) socially unaware and 2) a natural gossip. Don't be Mrs. Bennet when you're in the middle of business writing. Here's what you could do, instead:

  • Take stock of the tone. Before putting pen to paper, ask, "Who am I writing for?" (Which is not something that Mrs. Bennet, who treats everyone from Mr. Bingley to Lady Catherine with a "mean understanding [...] and uncertain temper," probably ever asks.) Have the versatility to adjust your tone, and know your audience.
  • Be brief and concise. Unlike chatterbox Mrs. Bennet, your writing can (and should) get to the point. Be brief about it, remembering that short sentences catch readers' attention. Use the active voice over a passive voice whenever possible (I believe, not It is believed), and cut out words such as "very." Big $10 words aren't that impressive. Don't use five words when one can do. As always, keep it tight to keep your readers.

3. Keep your pitch clear

As a woman, Austen met tons of challenges in the publishing industry. She persisted, but one unanticipated roadblock she faced was this evergreen business tool: the pitch.

In 1797, George Austen -- Jane Austen's father -- sent a note to a big publisher, with something attached: a manuscript titled First Impressions, which would be re-titled Pride & Prejudice in revisions. It never made a jot of difference because, in the well-meaning pitch, George Austen never once mentioned the genre of the novel, the novel's title, a summary of the novel -- or anything of note about the novel itself, really.

Sir,--I have in my possession a manuscript novel, comprising 3 vols., about the length of Miss Burney's "Evelina." As I am well aware of what consequence it is that a work of this sort shd make its first appearance under a respectable name, I apply to you. I shall be much obliged therefore if you will inform me whether you choose to be concerned in it, what will be the expense of publishing it at the author's risk, and what you will venture to advance for the property of it, if on perusal it is approved of. Should you give any encouragement, I will send you the work.

I am, Sir, your humble Servant,

GEORGE AUSTEN.

As you might expect, the manuscript in question was turned down; without being given a proper presentation of the work, the publisher was said to never even give it a glance.

Happily, of course, we now know that this story ends with the publication of Pride & Prejudice in 1813, via another publisher. But if you'd rather not risk 15 years of delay, better safe than sorry: know your message, and make the pitch clear as day.

Published on: Jun 30, 2017
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