Great business writing isn't just about style. It's about survival. If your sales copy isn't compelling, people won't buy your products. If your interoffice communications are unclear, that will hold back collaboration. No one will invest in your business if you can't articulate why it's going to succeed.
Experts have even identified bloated, jargon-filled writing as a warning sign that a company has deeper strategic or execution problems it's trying to paper over with bloviating prose.
Writing well will make or break your business (or your career). So how do you get good at it? As someone who makes their living writing, I'm always on the lookout for useful advice, and I recently stumbled across a great list of tips from AngelList co-founder Babak Nivi.
Some of them have either already been covered to death (cut as many words as you can!) or I personally find oversold (such as "avoid adjectives," which while not totally without merit, focuses on a relatively minute concern). But several of them seem to me good enough to merit commandment status.
1. "Business writing is a customer service problem."
If there is one thing I wish I could imprint on the brains of my editorial and ghostwriting clients above all others, it is this principle -- writing is not about you, your feelings, or your accomplishments. It's about serving the reader. Nivi frames this truth in a particularly succinct and business friendly way when he admonishes entrepreneurs and others to see writing as a customer service problem.
"You're not the star -- the reader is. Help them get what they want, as quickly and effectively as possible. They might want to solve a problem. They might want to be persuaded. Give 'em the goods," he instructs.
2. "Sum it up in a tweet." (Or a headline)
When I sit down to write an article, I always start with a headline. After I work on it awhile, I may go back and rework that headline because my thinking has shifted. That's fine (good, in fact; writing is about thinking, not just expressing). But if you don't start with a clear destination in mind, expressed in the form of a headline (or, as Nivi prefers, a tweet), you're likely to waste a colossal amount of time.
And if you can't sum up what you're saying succinctly at the end, you're really in trouble. "If the tweet isn't compelling, the rest isn't compelling," Nivi writes. "The ideal tweet absolves the reader from reading further. Sequoia says, 'Summarize the company's business on the back of a business card.'"
3. "Writing is rewriting."
Jeff Bezos, who built a famously writing-centric culture at Amazon, once warned in a shareholder letter that writers often "mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more." Believe Bezos. Writing well is an iterative, time-intensive process.
Two conclusions follow from that truth, one probably more welcome than the other. The good news is that it's perfectly fine if your initial draft is garbage (in screenwriting, this is memorably called "a vomit draft"). That's normal. The bad news is making it great, while possible, is going to take much longer than you probably expect.
Or, as Nivi puts it: "Write down your thoughts in a stream of consciousness. Don't get hung up on diction. Then spend most of your time rewriting and reorganizing -- sweat the details. I'm still rewriting posts days after I've published them."
4. "Don't write your thought process."
Remember how I said if you don't start with a destination in mind you're going to spend a whole lot of time wandering around on the page looking for your point? Well, too often writers groping around for something to say then fail to cut out all the evidence of that groping afterward. The result is unfocused, overlong writing (often with unnecessary, throat-clearing introductions).
"The final draft shouldn't mimic the path you took to come up with the idea. Instead, start the piece with a conclusion and make your best case," says Nivi.
5. "Scrutinize every word for bias and rhetoric."
That struck me as a fresh and important rule from Nivi. "Are they an 'unruly mob' or 'patriots'? Perhaps neither--just call them by their name. Argue the other side of every word, at least to yourself. Learn more about bias," he writes.
Sure, it's important to avoid unintentionally offending people with a poorly thought out word choice, but scrutinizing your text for bias also helps you root out your own unexamined biases and think more logically, which can only be good for you and your business.