Whether you’re a blogger, marketer, PR executive or investment analyst, don’t take offence at what I’m about to say. Your business writing may not be as good as you think it is.
How do I know?
I’ve worked as a journalist for two decades—writing for newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and The Economist, as well as on niche business titles.
I’ve read your work. And although some you write very well, a lot of what I see is tough to read.
Don’t get me wrong. You often have great things to say. But the writing is frequently boring, long-winded and hard to get.
I don’t blame you for writing that way. At college, most of us are encouraged to improve our vocabulary and to practice expressing complex ideas, but nobody ever teaches us how to write with flair.
I realised this soon after I graduated from Sussex university, in 1992, and set out to become a journalist.
Like many graduates with an impressive arts degree, I was convinced I could write well already. My tutors regularly praised my work, leading me to believe all I needed, to become a great hack, was to continue writing as I’d done with my college essays.
When I eventually did land a job on a respectable news title, it was a harsh wake-up call. The editors made me aware of huge weaknesses in my writing style.
They hacked away at my impulsive use of jargon, cliches and overly official words. They stripped my articles of hot-air-filled sentences. They moved information I’d buried at the bottom of an article to nearer the top. They took points I’d started with and exiled them way down to the bottom.
They’d restitch my articles and give them to me for a cursory “backread”—by which time they were often unrecognisable. Somehow, those editors had created from my raw ideas an impossibly beautiful narrative that resembled a stunning piece of music more than prose. The writing was poignant and evocative.
Like any self-respecting reporter, I’d feel injured by this callous reengineering of my work. The indifference of those editors to my bloated self-view made it worse.
The one good thing was that it forced me to look more critically at my writing.
A college tutor tends to overlook a redundant word here, or a long-winded sentence and careless repetition there. Those ingenious wordsmiths, however, would edit such ugliness out of existence with the skill of ninja warriors.
And that was how, as a newbie reporter, I became aware of “the gap”—between how good I thought I was as a writer, and how good it was possible to be.
Those editors proved to me that it was possible to refine writing way beyond the level of the average graduate or business professional. But it wasn’t long before I began wondering whether they simply had a natural flair for writing—or else if they were applying some kind of advanced methodology.
As my writing experience grew, I began noticing things I had never picked up on before: such as how jargon-laden and substance-free were so many of the press releases that companies were emailing me daily.
After what I’d been through starting out, I could no longer stomach reading about this or that “market-leading service provider” offering “state-of-the-art value-added solutions.”
It also affected my personal life. I began looking at friends’ resumes with a newfound disdain, cringing as they described themselves as a “dynamic individual” with an “innovative approach” to managing “workflow environments.” (I still haven’t figured out what makes a person dynamic).
I became painfully aware of how highly-paid investment analysts would concoct the curliest of sentences to express ideas that were truly quite simple. As journalists, our work was often to untangle those ideas so our readers could make better sense of them.
It was comical, sometimes, to observe how really smart people in the business world routinely write in a way that required a gold medal in mental gymnastics to fully understand.
That got me thinking: what kind of advantage would people outside the world of top journalism have if they could write like editors on the world’s best newspapers?
No doubt, some of us have an innate flair for writing, as others do for playing a musical instrument or dancing. But as I studied the techniques of those editors who’d so humbled me, I came to realise they were often applying principles anybody who’d learnt them could follow.
When eventually I became an editor myself, I began taking notes while I edited—spelling out what I was doing to my reporters’ copy. I noticed some obvious patterns.
I began to realise that my edits almost always aimed to transform dull, confusing and clunky writing into the opposite—prose that was simple, clear and elegant. I began calling this the secret sauce of good writing.
There are other qualities you can add on top of simplicity, clarity and elegance—rhythm, variety and evocativeness, among them. But without those three qualities as a foundation, most writing was a pain to read.
The question was: how do you maximise the simplicity, clarity and elegance of your business writing?
The first step is to unlearn some bad habits. It’s good that at school and college we’re encouraged to become familiar with big words and to experiment with long, complex sentences
A wide vocabulary lets us express our thoughts more precisely; and writing complicated sentences exercises our intellect. The problem is that many of us have now come to see fancy, convoluted language as proof of intelligence.
The view is so embedded in our psyches that when I urge some of my students to prefer short words and straightforward sentences, many feel an urge to reject the advice. They fear their business writing will begin to look childish, or that they are being encouraged to “dumb down” their ideas.
To become a better writer, you have to drop that resistance. You need to understand that your writing is more sophisticated when you have learned to express your thoughts—even complex ones—in the simplest way possible.
I’ve spent so much time substituting a reporter’s needlessly long words with shorter ones that mean the same thing, and turning their curly sentences into instantly-gettable simpler ones.
That’s not dumbing down. It is doing what any good editor should do: sharpening communication by avoiding unnecessary ceremony.
Equally, you have to take care never to oversimplify an idea—of course. But a good writer will never overcomplicate a simple one. I’ve found that even the most seemingly complex ideas can be put more simply than initially appears possible.
It is well worth the effort.
So, be ruthless with your own copy. Get your ego out of the way, and ask yourself—honestly, with each sentence—whether a simple idea has gotten shrouded in complexity.
Here are three tactics you can start applying immediately to boost the simplicity of your business writing:
1. Stick to short, familiar words
Words with an official ring—such as commence or “exhibit”—more often than not weaken business writing. Journalists call them “officialese.” What’s wrong with start and show, which are shorter and have more impact.
Don’t provide me with an update. Update me. Also, don’t say you’ll investigate something if all you will really do is look. I’d rather you used my bathroom than utilised it.
Imagine a cover letter for a job that ends like this:
“I shall be pleased to invoke, facilitate and formalise an acquaintance should you deem my extensive and considerable experience to be appreciably worthwhile to your company and its long-term trajectory at this moment in time.”
It has the appearance of being grave and weighty. But really it’s as pretentious as hell. Why not be straightforward and honest, and say you’d love to meet for an interview?
I’m not asking you to limit your vocabulary, or to stop using longer words that are more precise or evocative than their shorter family members. I’m only suggesting you don’t go to the longer, more official words as your default option.
2. Strike out as many words as possible
You may be surprised how many words can be deleted from a sentence without losing any of the intended meaning.
“I am of the opinion that it is necessarily the case that my cat exhibits adorable qualities,” obscures the writer’s real meaning, which is, “My cat is really cute.”
The journalist Harold Evans famously invited readers to consider which words appearing on a signpost in a marketplace could be deleted without hurting comprehension. The words were: FRESH FISH SOLD HERE.
All of the words can, in theory, go. Most people would expect the fish to be “fresh” and “sold.” The person reading the sign already knows they are “here.” And it would likely be possible to smell the “fish.”
3. Uncomplicate ideas
Always try to peel away ideas in a sentence to get to its simplest form.
“The notion that a competitive workplace environment is commensurate with superior performance is, at best, dubious.”
When you uncomplicate that sentence, you get something that reads much more simply—and is therefore easier and quicker to grasp:
“A competitive workplace doesn’t always lead to better performance.”
The journalist Paul Krugman wonders whether it would be better to replace this long-winded sentence with something simpler:
“An economic view that has unfortunately retained considerable influence, possibly because it has a political appeal to some parties, despite extensive empirical evidence that appears to refute the proposition…”
“A zombie idea,” he proposes. The phrase may be an oversimplification, but it does help illustrate the huge distance one can (usefully) travel from complexity to simplicity.
Clarity is the second ingredient of good business writing.
Have you read something that leaves you scratching your head? I have. Before I became a journalist, I used to think it was because I wasn’t smart enough to understand the writer’s point.
After I became an editor, I realised it’s seldom the reader’s fault for not understanding something, but the writer’s for not expressing things clearly enough.
As an editor for The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, I’ve managed to turn the most complex and unwieldy sentences into something easily comprehensible—without sacrificing any of a reporter’s intended meaning.
The truth is that almost anything can be expressed in a straightforward way that other reasonably intelligent people can understand.
Here are some things that stand in the way of clarity:
1. Lazy business writing
Sometimes, we’re just too lazy to explain things clearly.
We leave sentences we’ve gracelessly coughed up as they are—even when they don’t express our thoughts that well. We put our writing out there hoping that somebody, perhaps more intelligent than ourselves, will figure out exactly what we mean.
Instead, be committed to making your business writing as accessible to as many likely readers as possible.
Try getting your head around this sentence, which I once read in an Australian equity strategist’s report:
“While a 4-out-of-5 chance of avoiding recession doesn’t sound too alarming, it is notable that this is the highest probability in the post-war period that didn’t result in a subsequent recession outside of the global financial crisis.”
To be fair to the writer, I’m taking this out of context. Still, the idea is so curly that it’s almost impossible to get it the first time around. Even the very first few words are tough to grasp: “While a 4-out-of-5 chance of avoiding recession…”
Shun this sort of complex sentence construction. Rather, aim to untangle ideas to create instant understanding.
Always ask yourself—what am I really trying to say here? Then just say it plainly, as you would to your nan.
Ambiguity is where something you write can have two or more possible meanings. Business writing is littered with it. Be ruthless, and strive to erase any trace of ambiguity from your business writing.
Look at these two sentences:
“Trico Inc. bought Starfish Ltd. in 2003. Ever since then, the company has failed to report a profit.”
Which company has failed to report a profit? It could be either. This sentence avoids the ambiguity:
“Trico Inc. bought Starfish Ltd. in 2003. Ever since then, the subsidiary has failed to report a profit.” It’s now clear Starfish is the one that hasn’t reported a profit.
Have a go at clearing up the ambiguity below—and to make it more difficult, do it without repeating either of the executives’ names:
“The rivalry between John Smith and Peter Jones has intensified since his promotion to CEO.”
Whose promotion? Here’s my attempt—assuming the promotion is what caused the pair’s rivalry to increase:
“John Smith’s promotion to CEO has intensified his rivalry with Peter Jones.”
Bad punctuation often hurts clarity.
The book Eats, Shoots and Leaves calls attention to the dramatic difference that misplacing a mere comma can make to the meaning of a sentence.
“The panda eats shoots and leaves.” Not, “The panda eats, shoots and leaves.”
And consider the huge difference in sentiment here:
“Did you run over, my friend?” And, “Did you run over my friend?”
The most overlooked aspect of good writing is elegance. It is the main quality that makes writing beautiful.
Here are two ways to cultivate the quality:
1. Pace sentences
Develop a feel for when a sentence seems too long or short—compared with others nearby. You’ll know, because your writing will feel clumsy when you read it back.
Treat the whole piece as a musical composition, looking for whether the words sound melodious together, whether a string of sentences feels too staccato, and whether the paragraph turns are or aren’t groovy.
Consider whether a sentence goes on too long because it has too many ideas in it. And if it does, try splitting it into two sentences—and notice if the rhythm improves. Or whether “you’re,” with its one syllable, makes a particular sentence flow better than “you are.”
Recognise when you’re repeating the same structure to the point of dullness:
“Qantas reported record profit. The airline said it was pleased with the result. Qantas is planning to increase the number of routes it flies internationally to help boost future earnings.”
The same subject-verb pattern, repeated endlessly, becomes tiresome.
Why not this?
“Qantas reported record profit and said it was pleased with the result. To lift future earnings, the airline said it was planning to boost the number of routes it flies globally.”
A sensitivity to writing rhythm takes time to develop. And just as with dancing, it is hard to teach. Start by trying to spot it in action—it’s there whenever you read something that makes you gasp or swoon.
Martin Luther King got it:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves, and the sons of former slave owners, will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
U.S. President Barack Obama’s speechwriters got it, too:
“We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy. When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Brian was the first to arrive, he didn’t consider his own safety. He fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the Americans worshiping inside—even as he lay bleeding from twelve bullet wounds. When asked how he did that, Brian said, ‘That’s just the way we’re made.’ That’s just the way we’re made. We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It is a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”
2. Create narratives
A good writer makes sure the ideas flow forward beautifully.
Rather than stating one relevant point after another in random order, they take care to compose a narrative. That’s what good writers mean when they talk about structure.
Think of a piece of business writing as containing points that can be usefully organised into sections. The points can be ordered elegantly within a section—and the sections themselves can be beautifully arranged.
There should be an impeccable logic to the flow of ideas. If you do this well, you may feel your business writing take on a gracefulness you never realised was possible.
A cover letter needs to include at least four things—relevant details about your background; what you want (an interview); what you think you could offer the company; and a polite acknowledgment of the job offer.
But not in that order! The four sections would flow better if the letter began by acknowledging the job offer, then went on to explain your background and suitability, and only then looked forward to an interview.
So now you’ve seen simplicity, clarity and elegance in action. Keep pushing toward those qualities and you’ll steadily improve your business writing. You’ll slip up, of course, as I do still. And don’t be disheartened if each time you read over your work you find ways to refine it further. The process can go on forever.
As a start, whenever you’re reading something consider how well the writer has applied those three concepts. And whenever you’re writing something, get in the habit of asking: is this word, sentence or paragraph as simple, clear and elegant as it could be?
About Shani Raja
(Shani Raja shares the full suite of principles in this business writing framework in his online course, Writing With Flair: How To Become An Exceptional Writer, which one of the most popular online courses on www.udemy.com. His newest course, Ninja Writing: The Four Levels of Writing Mastery, will be released in February.)
Shani Raja teaches top journalists how to improve their business writing and has written and edited for some of the world’s biggest news organizations, including The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Bloomberg News. Shani has also taught advanced business writing skills to professionals, lectures in journalism at the University of Technology and has edited copy for large companies including Microsoft, IBM and PwC.
You can access Shani Raja’s online writing courses at www.udemy.com.