Skip to content

The Differences Between Our Writing and Shakespeare’s

Today is William Shakespeare’s 449th birthday. Imagine being remembered for your fine writing hundreds of years after your death!

But if you are a business writer, being remembered is not as important as being effective day by day. Has the email you sent this morning gotten a positive response yet? Did the proposal you wrote last week win approval? Did your newsletter article inform employees of useful information?

Those questions are more relevant than this one: Will your writing be quoted in a few hundred years?

If you wrote like Shakespeare, in iambic pentameter (the rhythmic meter of much of his poetry and plays) and used fresh, rich language and extraordinary, often comic metaphors and similes, you might be successful in the literary world, but not in the business world.

We use different methods to communicate with our audience.

Instead of fresh, surprising language, we use terms all our readers can understand, even people who live on the other side of the globe. When we use an unusual term or abbreviation, we define it. We don’t want readers guessing what it means.

Instead of writing in long, flowing speeches, we use short, crisp sentences that have their own short rhythm. We know that the shorter the sentence, the easier it is to understand.

Instead of striving for comic relief, we normally strive for clarity. We recognize that our readers typically need to understand us more than they need to laugh at our message.

Instead of using double entendres (words or phrases that can be taken more than one way, often with a sexual connotation), we avoid them. We never want our readers to dissect our work for the hidden meaning. We try hard to be transparent.

Like Shakespeare, sometimes we do write about big issues, with the goal of persuading or moving our audience emotionally. But much of the time it’s the small stuff—the deadlines we meet, the promises we keep, the positive outlook we convey, the attention to detail—that makes us and our readers successful.

As a former English major, I love Shakespeare. But I would not love him if we worked together and he sent me emails like his sonnets and soliloquies (speeches in which characters reveal their innermost thoughts). Rather than being gripped by his every word, I would be tripping over them, hoping to understand his point.

What comes to mind when you think about Shakespeare and business writing? Do you work with any Shakespeares?


Posted by Avatar photo
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “The Differences Between Our Writing and Shakespeare’s”

  • “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Actually, Lynn, I love your columns and read each one. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my obsession with words and grammar in a WTF OMG world. And now, “I go, I go, swift as the arrow from an archer’s bow!”

  • What an excellent explanation of the importance of clarity in business writing, while still giving a beautiful tribute to Shakespeare’s legacy. I love it!

    On the occasion of Shakespeare’s 449th birthday, I’ll share this little gem from the World Wide Web: “Pentametron” is an automated Twitter page that uses algorithms to find tweets that are written in iambic pentameter, and then pairs them into rhyming couplets and retweets them. You can find it here:

  • Hi, Lisa Marie. Thank you for the resource. Love it!

    To illustrate the point for others, I am sharing the site’s description:

    “With algorithms subtle and discrete / I seek iambic writings to retweet.”


  • Shakespeare was using language his audience could understand; part of their skillset was in being comfortable with coinages.

    I’d also argue that Shakespeare used short and long sentences in a similar proportion to what current writers do. He certainly had shorter sentences on average than ninteenth century prose writers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *