Five ways to sharpen your business language in 2015

Posted on 6 January 2015 by Lucy Gregory

Here are five techniques that will whip your writing in shape:

1. Tighten your content with the ‘so what?’ test

Everyone thinks their own writing is amazing. Yes, you do. Which makes it incredibly difficult for you to critique your own work. Especially when it comes to content.

To overcome this problem, use my quick test. For each sentence you write, ask yourself ‘So what? Why does my reader care about this piece of information?’

If the information is not important to your reader, why is it in your document? If you don’t have a good reason, take it out.

2. Cut the deadwood

As well as tightening your content, try to tighten your style. The easiest way to do this is go through your writing and delete unnecessary words. Be brutal: unless a word adds to your meaning or it’s vital for sentence structure, get rid of it.

Here’s an example:

We have undertaken an analysis concerning the plans you have presented of the proposed development and are pleased to submit this report describing our main findings and recommendations.
We have analysed your plans of the proposed development and describe our main findings and recommendations in this report.

With a few simple edits, I’ve reduced 28 words to 19 and revealed the important content.

3. Ditch the pompous prose and business jargon

Your job as a business writer is not to show everyone how clever you are (tempting though that may be); it’s to get the job done as efficiently as possible. So make sure your readers can understand you.

If you do, you’ll be in good company. Both George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway were fans of straightforward language.

4. Prefer the active voice

The active voice puts the person doing the action at the beginning of a sentence. The passive puts the person doing the action at the end of a sentence or leaves them out altogether.

Active: ‘The dog bit the man.’
Passive: ‘The man was bitten by the dog.’

Active: ‘We recommend you diversify your investments.’
Passive: ‘It is recommended that you diversify your investments.’

Active: ‘John will finish the report tomorrow.’
Passive: ‘The report will be finished by John tomorrow.’

As you can see, the active is shorter, more direct and much more vigorous than the passive.

The passive has its place in writing, but it should be the exception rather than the rule. So, in 2015, switch to the active voice as your default and see your writing come to life.

5. Look it up

It’s a massive hassle to look up stuff you don’t know. I really do appreciate that. But guessing is not a good idea when you’re at work.

If you’re not sure how something is spelled or whether it needs a hyphen or an apostrophe, Google it. It might take a bit of searching to find the answer, but it’s better than getting it wrong and looking like an idiot.