7 Business Writing Truths for College Grads

Writing that succeeds in college often fails in business. That is because professors, thesis advisors, and instructors want one style of writing. Classmates, friends, and family expect another type. But on the job, managers, employees, customers, and others need something completely different.

To write well on the job, consider these truths and apply them:

Truth 1. Business writing has a purpose.
Your professors expected you to have a thesis. Friends and family wanted you to keep in touch. But on the job, your readers expect you to have a purpose. You must recognize your purpose and write to achieve it, whether it is to win back an unhappy client, promote a change, or help employees understand how a decision was made.  

Apply the truth: Determine your purpose before you start writing.

Truth 2. Business writing focuses on action, results, and goals. 
Academic writing presents and explores ideas and theories. Personal messages entertain, tell stories, and reveal who you are. On the job, your writing may explore ideas and present a compelling story, but it should lead to action or contribute to a goal.  

Apply it: Before writing a document, decide what action you want your readers to take or feeling you want them to have. Do you want them to attend a conference? approve a request? feel positive about a new way of doing things? When you know what you want your readers to do or feel, you can help them move toward that goal.  

Truth 3. In business writing, every word counts–but not in the way it did at school.
W
hen your professor assigned a 500-word essay, every word counted–that is, every word added up to the required 500. When you wrote to friends and family, they savored every word. But in business writing, less is more. When you communicate a big idea in 300 efficient words–not 500–you save time for yourself and your reader.  

Apply it: Recognize that less is more. Before sending out or publishing a piece of writing, edit it for unnecessary words and redundant content. 

Truth 4. In business writing, simple structures succeed. 
Your professor probably encouraged your complex sentence structures, and your friends and family enjoyed them. But your manager will be impressed when you communicate simply and clearly. Although your 40-word sentences earned A's in college and admiration from friends and family, the 20-word versions will win acceptance and understanding on the job.  

Apply it: Break up long, complex sentences. Be sure your documents average 20 words per sentence or less.  

Truth 5. In business, writers and readers speak different languages. 
Your college professors were highly educated specialists who understood the six-syllable words you used in papers. Likewise, your friends and family knew your world and understood your slang and personal references. But your readers at work will range from senior executives to senior citizens, from technical experts to novice users, from your team members down the hall to workers in other departments or on other continents.

Apply it: Use simple, clear words that match your purpose and audience. Although you were cognizant in college, choose aware on the job. Although school semesters commenced, make your business quarters start. Remember that at work high-quality things are excellent, not sick, and CU frequently means "credit union"–not "see you."

Truth 6. Essential points must stand out in business documents. 
Pages of long, double-spaced, indented paragraphs are standard in college papers and in personal outpourings, which are read from beginning to end. But unlike academics and your best friends, business readers skim for the information they seek.  

Apply it: Make it easy for your readers to retrieve what they need. Break your messages into brief, single-spaced, block-style paragraphs. Add plenty of headings, bullet points, and white space.

Truth 7Business writers build others up. 
College writing earns praise for clever, pointed, often sarcastic criticism of books, musical compositions, and other works. And writing to friends and family is a safe place for carefree carping about others. But in business, the same cutting remarks come off as rudeness, insensitivity, and even harassment. On the job, you use writing to build up other people and projects–not tear them down.  

Apply it: Before sending out any communication, check it for tone. Ask yourself "Will this message support relationships or destroy them?" Change digs to diplomatic statements. Talk on the phone or meet in person if a written message might be taken as an attack.

Do you have ideas to help new graduates and other people write well on the job? Please share them. 

If you supervise new grads or others whose writing should be better, get the guide Help Employees Write Better: A Guide for Managers, Trainers, and Others Who Care About Business Writing.   

Lynn
Syntax Training

P.S. I originally published this post as an article in my newsletter Better Writing at Work

12 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks lynn,

    This is very helpful, at my Job communication reaches as many as 1,000 staffs at once, there are instances when it appears “top management” are passing the buck other times it feels like we are all a team.
    Use of words and understanding hypernyms and hyponyms would be very helpful to graduates.

  2. Now that I think about it, my literature students (and a lot of academic writing) would benefit from several of these points, especially the recommendations about simpler, shorter sentence structures and straightforward, unembellished vocabulary.

  3. Kolade, thank you for your interesting comment. For those who may not recognize the linguistic terms “hyponym” and “hypernym,” let me give two examples:

    “Dog” is a hyponym of “animal,” whereas “animal” is a hypernym of “dog.”

    “Rose” is a hyponym of “flower,” and “flower” is a hypernym of “rose.”

    Lynn

  4. Lynn, I don’t think you were wrong about long words and sentences being encouraged in college.

    They are encouraged, sometimes appropriately and sometimes not (but less often). They are appropriately encouraged when they fit the intended meaning. When academic writing calls for more precision of meaning, it will inevitably require less familiar terms and more complex structures to fit that more specific meaning. Even so, we can almost always simplify the first draft of a complex sentence.

    Unfortunately, some students (and my literature students are on the freshman and sophomore levels) sometimes impose artificially complicated expression on fairly simple ideas. (In their journal articles, professors are also sometimes guilty of forced academese.)

    Your article helpfully reminds graduates that the workplace audience is diverse and that most ideas can be expressed more simply. Yet even with a professor as an audience and even with more abstract topics, my students would do well to follow several of the points in your article.

  5. Thanks for this article, Lynn. We are placing more emphasis on writing in our accounting classes this coming fall semester. And, your tips will be at the top of my list when the teaching begins. I’ll also be requiring my students to subscribe to your site. We want our students to be market ready when they begin applying for internships and having excellent writing skills are always at the top of any employer’s list. As one of my mentors used to say…”your boss won’t hire you to write for you.” So true! Yolanda

  6. Yolanda, I am delighted that you are helping your accounting students write better. In their careers, they will need to convey very technical information. Communicating it clearly and concisely will be essential to their success.

    Thank you for requiring your students to subscribe to this site. I hope you will also have them subscribe to my monthly newsletter, “Better Writing at Work.” Each monthly issue covers a specific writing topic. To subscribe, visit:
    http://syntaxtraining.com/signup.html .

    Keep up your important work!

    Lynn

  7. I’d add an item about the need to put your ego aside in business writing. Personal writing exists for self-expression, and academic writing exists to show how learned the writer is. Audiences for business writing, however, don’t care about who the writer is personally. These readers just care about the message and how they can use it on the job. Put this idea into action by thinking about what the reader needs to know, not just what you want to say.

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