One way is to take a page from the world's largest retailer: Write like an Amazonian.
In a recent twitter thread, Alex Garcia summarized tips for better writing (I've condensed them) from former enterprise services director John Rossman's book Think Like Amazon: 50 1/2 Ways to Become a Digital Leader.
Here we go (let's see if I can write like Amazon in the process):
1. Use fewer than 30 words per sentence.
Short sentences help ensure readers don't get lost. (Short sentences help ensure you don't get lost.)
To keep sentences shorter:
- Focus on one idea per sentence. And don't be tempted to lump three justifications for an idea into the same sentence. Bullet points can often be your reader's friend.
- Strip out "qualifiers" like "I think," "I feel," "should we consider," etc. "I think we need to consider increasing hourly wages" gives you a way out. "We need to increase hourly wages" takes a stand.
- Eliminate anything that reads like "style." Don't use your writing to extend your personal brand.
As Alex writes, "Short sentences help break down the info into bite-size pieces. Digestible info = retained info."
2. Replace adjectives with data.
Words like "exceptional," "phenomenal," impressive," etc. are fine if hyperbole is your goal.
Unless you're writing an infomercial, though, stick to actual results. Don't force readers to interpret your meaning. Be specific.
"On-time delivery rates increased dramatically" is fluffy and requires interpretation. "On-time delivery performance increased from 82 percent to 91 percent" is clear and objective.
Same with "Eliminating the existing server issues will require considerable effort." In real-world terms, what does that mean?
"Fixing the problems in our code will take a coder 20 hours, and will involve shutting down the site for 1.5 hours to install new code."
Whenever you find yourself reaching for an adjective, stop and provide the data behind the adjective instead. Let readers come up with their own adjectives -- "Waste is down 23 percent? That's awesome!" -- in response to the facts you provide.
3.Use the "So what?" test.
If the reader can't immediately tell what you want them to do -- make a decision, take an action, respond by a certain time, etc. -- they're left thinking, "So what?"
That includes introductory context. If your goal is to announce that certain members of your team will continue to work remotely, don't include a recap of the effects of Covid-19 on your business. Your employees know that. (All too well.)
What they want to know is who, how long, and what changes may result.
4. Avoid jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords.
For some, jargon is shorthand. Same with acronyms. But for others, jargon and acronyms exclude.
Say your goal is to detail certain financial results. If you're writing for an accounting audience, using EBITDA is fine. If not, the first time you use EBITDA, make sure you explain it: "EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization)."
Then, just use EBITDA from them on.
When in doubt, explain technical terms and acronyms. Those familiar will breeze on by the info inside parentheses. Those unfamiliar will better understand what you hope to convey.
The same is true for buzzwords. Read this:
"Acme Industries today announced a groundbreaking strategic partnership with a leading solutions provider to create an exclusive, dynamic, state-of-the-art application that will revolutionize the social-media user experience."
Now look away, close your eyes for about 10 seconds, and try to repeat what you just read.
Thought so. Now try this:
"Acme Industries launches the first tool to stop others from posting unedited photos of you."
Just say what you mean, in plain language. The reader will decide if what you describe is truly "revolutionary" or "groundbreaking."
5. Use subject-verb-object sentences.
When in doubt, keep things simple:
- Subject: Who or what you're writing about
- Verb: What they did or will do
- Object: Who or what is acted upon
"A manufacturing employee complained about overtime pay rates."
Who: a manufacturing employee. What did he do: complained. About: overtime pay rates. Hard to miss the intent of that sentence.
Plus, using the subject-verb-object structure tends to result in shorter sentences and fewer adjectives. Win-win.
Pulling It All Together
Before you start writing, think about your goal: to educate, to instruct, to convince, to sell, to build a relationship, etc. (There's no reason to write if you don't want to accomplish something.) That drives everything.
Then, stick to short sentences. Use action verbs instead of adverbs. Avoid clichés. Avoid jargon. Explain technical terms.
Once you finish a draft, try to cut it down by a third. The result will be more precise, understandable, and actionable for the reader. As Mark Twain supposedly said, "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one."
To be a better business writer -- to write like an Amazonian -- don't worry about being an artist.
Just be a technician.
Because good business writing is writing that gets things done.