Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ten tips for better business writing

During my divorce, my wife's solicitor approached me in the court's waiting room and asked me about my earnings from music journalism. I pointed out that it was several years ago, and that by talking about it for 15 minutes she had probably earned more from it than I had. I might dream about creative writing, but business writing has bought the house, put my daughters through school and put a BMW in my driveway.

But that's another story and brings me to my first point about effective writing:

1) Get to the point
You're probably reading this and looking for tips about writing and find yourself reading about my divorce. What do you care? I might want to set myself up as a heroic figure who has spent five years to bringing up two teenage girls, but how does my one-sided, self-aggrandising boasting help you? Not in the slightest. In fact, it's already putting you off, I can tell.

Think about your readers. They neither know nor care about the struggles you went through to research and write the report they are reading. They are busy people. They need to know the important stuff and need to know it now. Don't waste their time. Don't write like an academic, filling the first two pages with caveats and discussions about your research processes. Get to the point and get there quickly.

2) Long words don't make you clever
Always remember, your readers are not interested in how many big words you know. If you want to produce art, write a novel. The simplest prose is the best.

3) Time goes at the end
I've just been proofreading a piece where the writer constantly puts the time part too close to the front of the sentence. For instance, he says:
The company in 2010 returned to profit
Why tell your readers when something happened before you say what happened? I want to ask the author, "When did you join Taini Kisen Kaisha?" He'll say, "I joined TKK in 1988." I'll then ask, "Why didn't you say, 'I in 1988 joined TKK.'" He'll give me a blank look and say something like, "…because that's a stupid way of putting it." "THEN WHY DO YOU WRITE LIKE THAT?"

4) Can't see the wood for the trees?
You can say less in 40 words than you can say in 20. I have plenty of experience in editing long, overwrought sentences and cutting them down to the bare essentials. And what do I find? Those sentences don't actually say anything. In essence, the writer is using long and wordy sentences to hide the fact that he hasn't thought out what he wants to say.

5) Due to the fact that…
…can always be replaced by "because". "Due to" is a popular way of disguising the relationship between one thing and another. It creates a vague relationship between two things where the cowardly writers can avoid saying 'x caused y'. Did x cause y? If you're not sure, then you should find out.

By the way, "due to" can only describe the relationship between two things (i.e. nouns). Floods can be due to rain, but such phrases as "there was a slight drop in 2010 due to less grain being harvested" are wordy, vague and wrong. Always replace "due to it being" with "because it is", as in "because less grain was harvested".

6) Beware of the 'brain dump'
Writing is all about communicating. Readers of novels and newspapers just need a good story, and accuracy is more important than completeness. Lawyers and academics don't want to read a story: they need to know everything, which is why academic and legal writing is so convoluted and dull.

Business writers fall between these two camps. Yes, they need to cram a lot more facts into their writing, but they need to focus on what the readers of this specific publication need to know. Filling your writing with unnecessary details and facts just to prove that you know them will not endear you to those readers.

7) Statistics don't belong in writing
If you're a business writer, you'll need some hard facts – including numbers – to back your arguments up. However, as I've said before, readers don't understand numbers and their presence in text obstructs rather than informs. You can't get away with no numbers at all, but two good rules of thumb will help to make your work more readable:
  • Rule 1: Have no more than two sets of numerals in any paragraph.
  • Rule 2: Do not quote numbers to more than three significant figures unless you absolutely cannot avoid it. A report I'm editing today says "volumes were up 17.59% from last week". Ask yourself, what can any reader possibly gain from being told those tenths and hundredths of a percent?
8) Use numbers that mean something
Conversions and forecasts are prime areas where numbers (especially percentages) are used with a precision that stretches reality. For instance, you might read that a German company is expecting to make £14.49 million in profit this year. Do the maths, and you'll find that £14.49 million is exactly €10 million at today's exchange rate and is clearly an estimate. That estimate wasn't accurate to four significant figures, and nor should your conversion be.

Similarly, you might read that trade volumes are 35.242 billion tonnes this year, but are expected to reach 44.053 billion tonnes in the next five years. Do the maths, and the prediction looks suspiciously like 25%, which is about as accurate as any such prediction can be. Quoting an accuracy of five significant figures borders on the dishonest.

9) Don't write in Latin
In the Middle Ages and beyond, Latin was the language of scholarship. John Milton, the 17th Century poet, had to give a one-hour lecture in Latin just to receive his degree. This is the 21st Century, so peppering your work with Latin phrases makes it less readable and gives it an air of pomposity. As per, per annum and sine qua non belong in 1st Century, not the 21st. Even the English courts have tried to eliminate Latin. You should too.

10) Communicate!
It doesn't matter how much you know: if your readers can't understand what you've written or become so bored that they give up, then you've failed. Getting your thoughts onto paper is only half the battle. Those thoughts need to get off the paper and into the minds of your readers. Your reader might be an executive or a professor, but when she reads she reads as a person. Don't try to communicate as expert to businessman. Communicate as person to person.

I could say a lot more on all these topics, but you're busy. I don't like to waste my readers' time, and nor should you.

Moral: There are two reasons for writing business reports: to inform other business folk and to develop your brand.


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