The truth about business writing style: keep it simple

Posted on 4 May 2015 by Lucy Gregory

In the past week, two comments about writing have given me pause for thought.

The first was actually a question, rather than a comment, from a client in a report-writing course: ‘How do you feel about alliteration?’

The second came from an acquaintance at a bar on Friday night. I was singing the virtues of clear and concise business writing (yes, I know, I’m a thrill a minute) and he responded with this: ‘Getting the message across efficiently is all very well, but there’s something to be said for a well-styled piece of writing.’ You can’t argue with that. Or can you?

Both of my conversationalists seem to misunderstand the purpose of business writing.

Alliteration is a fantastic literary device, one of my favs. But it is a literary device. There are all sorts of places where it works: a novel, a blog, a speech – but not a financial report.

We have pontificated on your pecuniary predicament and conclude that you should convert your cash into illiquid investments… what I imagine such a report would look like. Bizarre!

And, yes, there is something to be said for a well-styled piece of writing, but when you need to bash out an urgent email or your proposal deadline is looming is that really your priority?

Many people think that to be a good business writer you need to to harness the dark magic of the English language and to dazzle the reader with your eloquence. They think that convoluted construction, posh prose and sophisticated syntax will win over the reader. More to the point, they worry that if they can’t deliver this kind of writing then colleagues and clients will look down on them.

Fortunately, none of this is true.

It might seem obvious but a business document is nothing more than a communication tool, no different from a meeting or a phone call.

Your job as a business writer is to get your message across clearly, efficiently and without fuss. If a reader can skim over your document, pick up the main points and understand what they need to do as a result, you’ve nailed it. To achieve this you do need to give some thought to your style: the simpler, the better.

There’s really nothing more to it than that.

I don’t know whether I won over the two people I mentioned earlier; they both seem to enjoy flexing their literary muscles at work. Do their busy readers appreciate such a display? I suspect not.