Almost everyone who works in business will have to do some writing sooner or later, even if it’s not in the job description. However, business writing isn’t like writing an essay or a letter to a friend. It has its own rules and guidelines, and anyone who needs to do some business writing should know them.
What Is Business Writing?
Business writing is always writing with a purpose. That purpose may be to elicit a response or merely to spread information. Whatever it is, every word of the correspondence must be directed to that purpose.
Whether it’s a memo, an email or a sales pitch, all business writing must be clear, concise and to the point. You’re not trying to impress the reader with your literary skills; you’re trying to motivate them to take some specific action. Here are some principles to remember when writing business documents:
- Keep your reader in mind. Write to their level, attune your writing to what they want and don’t waste their time with words that they neither need nor care about.
- Avoid flowery writing. Say away from long sentences, overdone descriptions and obscure words.
- Use technical terms only when you’re writing for an audience that knows what they mean.
- Organize your work so that it’s easy to scan. Favor short paragraphs and bullets. Think about the physical appearance of the page and leave some white space.
- Put your main point up front. Don’t make your audience read to the end to get it. Many of them won’t make it that far.
- Double-check for errors. They damage your credibility and make the reader less likely to respond the way you want them to. Use a grammar app to catch mistakes.
The spread of online communication has created additional opportunities to make business communication easier for the reader. We’ll see that in the examples that follow.
Types of Business Writing Styles
Business writing can be instructional, informational, persuasive or transactional. Let’s look at some characteristics of each along with some well-constructed examples.
INSTRUCTIONAL BUSINESS WRITING
An instructional document tells the reader what they need to know to do their job or to complete a specific task. One example is the user manual, which lists the features of a product and often tells readers step-by-step how to perform specific tasks with them. Many workplace memos are instructional, telling employees how to comply with policies or complete administrative tasks.
Specification documents, how-to guides and training manuals are other typical types of instructional writing.
A key to instructional writing is understanding the readiness level of the audience. If you’re writing to the IT team about your new software, you can use more technical language than if you’re describing it to the user community. If it’s a how-to for a knowledgeable user, you may not have to describe every step in as much detail.
Let’s look at this user guide from Mimosa. It’s structured as an online document, yet it’s not hard to imagine how it would look as a paper document with a table of contents and chapters. Because it’s online, however, the reader simply has to click links to navigate rather than look through the contents and turn to a page.
Notice how this high-level page is clean, spare and easily readable. It points to subordinate pages which are clearly labeled as dashboard, wireless, etc. Each of those pages shows some text, and most have diagrams. The diagnostics page, to take an example, has three sections separated by white space and simplified with bulleted lists. It’s easy to go directly to the diagnostic test you’re interested in.
This document uses a lot of jargon, but that’s appropriate because it’s jargon the target audience understands.
INFORMATIONAL BUSINESS WRITING
Informational writing generally doesn’t call the reader to immediate action but informs them of something. It exists as a record so that in the future readers can go back to it and refer to the information it contains.
Examples are meeting minutes, financial reports, general reports and employee handbooks. Sometimes they exist to meet legal obligations.
As meeting minutes, they record when the meeting took place, who was there, what business was discussed and any decisions that the attendees made.
This is an example of a Zapposinsights online guide; they call it a culture book.
The first thing you might notice is how easy it is on the eyes. It’s due to the font, the centered text and the grayish background.
While most business writing is not first-person, it works in this case. The leader, Tony Hsieh, is expressing his commitment to the company’s culture and using his position and personality to convince the employees not only to read but also to absorb the message. The testimonials by others reinforce what he has to say.
The second page, the page behind the “View All” button, lists the 10 aspects of Zapposinsights culture. They’re separated by white space and each is expressed in an easily readable paragraph. It’s simple to scan the 10 points or quickly go to one and read more about it.
Note that each culture point is accompanied by an image. The online format can take advantage of pictures in a way a paper handbook might not.
PERSUASIVE BUSINESS WRITING
This is the type of business writing that tries to convince someone to take some action. Some persuasive writing is internal to a company. That is, someone is trying to convince a superior, a colleague or a department to take some action that the writer believes is good for the business.
However, persuasive writing is more often associated with sales and marketing. One example is the press release, which promotes the company and aims to convince the media to write positively about it. There is also general advertising that’s intended to raise brand awareness and promote the image of the business with the public.
A more direct form of persuasive writing is the sales pitch. It can be in the form of an email, a print ad or online advertising. An example of the last is found in this following offer from Tailor Brands.
Online advertising of this sort has an advantage in that it can be targeted at a specific audience so that the target audience is more likely to see it than the larger public. This page promotes a toolkit that can be used to establish or improve an online presence.
Note that it gets right to the point about what it offers, proclaiming “50% OFF” and “LAST DAY” in caps at the top of the page. There is one clear, terse paragraph about what the product is and another enticement in the form of an online coupon.
The prospect who clicks the “Launch” link is immediately brought to a page where they’re invited to engage as a customer.
TRANSACTIONAL BUSINESS WRITING
Transactional business writing conducts the day-to-day correspondence of the business. It includes such things as invoices, handouts and emails acknowledging an order or updating a customer on order status. It can include correspondence such as extending or accepting a job offer.
Transactional writing may seem unexciting compared with other types, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Clarity (and usually brevity) are critical. A sloppy or unclear transactional document can lead to confusion, elicit the wrong action and even damage a company’s reputation.
In the above example from Stocksy, the company is sending a prospective customer a verification code so that the customer can complete the process of setting up an account. It’s a common type of correspondence that most of us see on a regular basis.
We may not pay much attention to it, that is, as long as it’s done right. This one is done right. The title and the two instructional sentences are clear and to the point. The link where you go to use the code is right there on the same screen. Anyone who lands on this page would have no misunderstanding about what to do next.
Some companies produce thousands of these transactional pages every day, and each one does just a little bit to raise or lower the organization’s reputation in the eyes of the reader.
All Business Writing Is Worth Doing Well
A short transactional message that will be seen by thousands is different from an extensive user manual to be read by a specific audience. While the forms may be different, they both depend on some core principles of business writing. When it’s done right, clearly and succinctly and with the purpose and the audience in mind, any type of business writing can be effective. Companies with well-structured business writing have an advantage in building their organization, attracting customers and enhancing their reputation.