When writing for business, you need to be clear and concise, delivering your message without confusion. Like any other style of writing, the quality of the document can make or break its success. An ineffective piece can mean a contract falls through, your boss will ignore your business solution, or a team does not follow your marketing scheme how you’d like.
One of the biggest roadblocks to good business writing is fluff — useless and rambling information and words. This may be an acceptable quality of casual writing and conversation, but it does not belong in business writing.
Keep your writing fluff-free by following the tips below.
Make an Outline
Before you even start writing the first word of your business document, outline. An outline will help you keep your writing focused. If you start writing without an outline, you will be in danger of continually going off-topic. This is a sure killer of your document.
Keep what you are writing relevant to the topic. Do not bring up something that happened years ago if it will not help you make your point. In conversation, it is normal to go off on tangents, but you cannot risk this in business writing. Your boss, prospective client, or investor will not be interested in them.
For example, a flyer advertising a new restaurant should not go in-depth about the cleanliness of their facilities or the background of the chefs. Leave that information for another document.
Redundancy is a common trap in business writing. When you want to get your point across, it is tempting to repeat yourself. You may also find yourself writing the same thing, just in different ways. This is one of the trickier things to edit for, but consider the importance and meaning of each sentence you write. Ask yourself, does this sentence contribute anything new or expand upon anything in the document? If not, it’s probably redundant.
Another way to avoid redundancy is to check for the overuse of specific terms. Everyone has their favorite vocabulary and modifiers, but limit the frequency at which you use them.
Avoid Clunky Phrases and Idioms
Be aware of how many words you are using in a sentence. If you are writing a phrase when a word can replace it, then do it. Business writing that involves outlining steps and directions is especially at risk for clunky sentences.
A typical example of this is the subordinating conjunction “in order to.” You can simply write “to.”
If you are writing directions, do not write, “Perform this step only after everything else has first been completed.” This is awkward writing. Instead, write, “Perform this step last.”
Avoid using clichés or idioms that rely on a reader’s knowledge of the phrase. These are not universal statements. Instead, find words that convey what you mean, to the degree at which you mean it.
For example, don’t write, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a whole cow.” Instead, write, “I am starving” or “I am ravenous.”
Do Not State Already Known Information
Don’t waste time repeating common knowledge about a subject if it does not add value to the document. This problem can occur when a writer is trying to reach as wide an audience as possible. In business writing, you need to remain focused on your audience. Assume there are some things the reader already knows.
If you are writing a business report for several of the managers in the company, you can assume they are well aware of the history of the company and how it performed for the past several years. This is not the information you need to restate. It is just fluff.
Remove Adverbs of Degree
Can words be useless? Yes. You may think a word adds emphasis to your writing, but most of the time, it does not. Words like “very” or “there” can be replaced by weightier words or just taken out completely.
If you are trying to emphasize the friendliness of your customer service staff, do not say, “Our staff is very friendly.” Just say, “Our staff is friendly.” There is not a big difference between “very friendly” and “friendly.”
When you’re writing a business document, you are not writing an academic article. Sure, you may refer to one, but this isn’t the time to bring out all the vocabulary you studied for the GRE. Keep it simple. Instead of saying “antediluvian,” write “outdated.” Don’t use “hubris,” write “pride.” You don’t even have to use the word “utilize.” “Use” will do just fine.
Using conventional, but professional, language will make your ideas understandable to a broader audience.
Use active voice! Passive voice is one of the most common errors in writing and can add unnecessary fluff to writing. Active voice assigns responsibility to action. It eliminates vagueries and potential misunderstandings. Instead of writing, “It is expected of all employees to…” write, “Management expects employees to…”
Walk Away, Edit, Read
Do not consider a first draft the final one.
Once you finish writing the first draft, walk away from it, or work on another project. It is difficult to go from writing directly to editing. Give yourself time between the two processes. When you come back, arm yourself with a red pen, red pencil, or whatever your weapon of choice is.
Edit like crazy, even if you have to delete sections you like. Save these parts for another document; it is easier to let go of them if you think you’ll use them again.
Read your document out loud. Listening for flow can be easier than reading for it.
Ask another person to look over your document. Another pair of eyes is always helpful. Someone else may catch something you didn’t.
Writing the perfect business document without fluff or redundancy is not easy, but you can do it. Always keep your audience in mind. Also, give yourself enough time to write and edit. A good business document doesn’t happen overnight. Hopefully, you’ll have a day or two to complete your project.