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.
When 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 7. Business 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.
P.S. I originally published this post as an article in my newsletter Better Writing at Work.