Below is Part 2 of the article, “How to Improve Your Business Writing“ from the online Harvard Business Review. Part 1 appeared in the March issue of Writing Tips. While none of the writing tips in this article is new, a refresher is always helpful because it can remind you of points you may have forgotten that can immediately improve your business writing. Here is the remaining half of the article, edited for clarity and space:
Practice every day
“Writing is a skill,” says Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management, “and skills improve with practice.” Author Bryan Garner suggests reading well-written material every day, and being attentive to word choice, sentence structure, and flow. “Start paying attention to the style of The Wall Street Journal,” he says. Invest in a guide to style and grammar for reference — Garner recommends Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Most importantly, build time into your schedule for editing and revising. “Writing and reworking your own writing is where the change happens, and it’s not quick,” says Blackburn. “The time is well spent because good writers distinguish themselves on the job.”
Principles to remember
- Plan out what you will say to make your writing more direct and effective.
- Use words sparingly and keep sentences short and to the point.
- Avoid jargon and “fancy” words. Strive for clarity instead.
- Argue that you simply can’t write. Anyone can become a better writer with practice.
- Pretend that your first draft is perfect, or even passable. Every document can be improved.
- Bury your argument. Present your main idea as soon as possible.
Case study #1: Don’t be afraid to share
When David McCombie began working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, he immediately realized that the writing style he’d honed at Harvard Law School wasn’t well suited for executive-level communications. “It was the structure of my arguments,” David says. “I was getting feedback that I needed to get to the point more quickly.”
With legal or academic writing, “you’re going to generally start with building up the case, and put the main point all the way at the end,” he says. “But in business communications, it’s best to start with your conclusion first.”
To make his writing more direct and effective, David asked several senior colleagues for all of their past presentations and reports so that he could mimic key elements of their format and style. He also copied trusted colleagues who were particularly skilled communicators on important emails and asked for their feedback.
David has carried these practices to the private equity firm he founded in Miami, the McCombie Group. “I send anything that’s important to my partner and he reads it over,” David says, adding that he knows better than to take the edits personally. “We talk about whether there is a better way to convey an idea, how we can be more succinct.”
Improving his writing has had a direct effect on David’s ability to become an influential voice in his field. He’s currently writing a book on his private equity firm’s niche market, The Family Office Practitioner’s Guide to Direct Investments.
“Even if I knew good business writing from the get-go, I think continually improving your writing and taking it to the next level is absolutely key to success,” David says. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes.”
Case study #2: Study good writing
Tim Glowa had already built a successful career as a strategic marketing consultant when he decided to set his ambitions a little higher. “I wanted to be perceived as a thought leader,” Tim says, “and to do that, I needed to have a point of view and I needed to put that point of view out in public.”
He knew that crafting smart, digestible op-eds and research papers was key to improving his professional reputation. His writing was already well received by colleagues and peers but much of his experience was rooted in academic writing. So he began reading business publications, like McKinsey Quarterly, for style. “I studied how they communicate,” Tim says, “and made an effort to make my own writing more direct and concise.”
He also incorporated an outlining ritual into his writing. Before writing reports and memos, he now begins with a short outline of the three main objectives. “You can’t just start typing and expect to go somewhere,” he says. “That’s like going for a walk and not knowing where the destination is.”
Tim, now the cofounder of a marketing analytics firm called Bug Insights, believes the efforts have made him a more effective communicator, improving not just his longer writings, but his emails and even his voicemails. “It filters down into virtually all my communication,” he says. And his work is finding an audience. Several of his papers have been downloaded more than 100,000 times, and a Fortune 50 company recently used one of his papers in an internal training and development program.
Tim is gratified at his progress, but says he’s not going to stop putting in the extra effort. “You have to work at it,” he says. “Anytime you develop a new skill, you have to study it.”
- The first reference to April Fools Day was in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, dating back to 1392.
- Gmail first launched on April 1st, 2004. It was widely assumed the service was an April Fools Day joke.
- On April Fools Day 1974, a man hauled 70 tires into the crater of a dormant volcano in Alaska and set them on fire, terrifying nearby residents into thinking the volcano was erupting again.
- For April Fools Day in 1998, Burger King took out a full-page ad in USA Today introducing a Whopper designed especially for lefties. Thousands of customers swarmed BK restaurants requesting the “lefty” Whopper.
- On April Fools Day in France, a common prank is to: place a life-size dummy face down in the Seine River and let it float downstream, tape a paper fish on a person’s back, stand outside the Louvre Museum and tell tourists the Mona Lisa was just stolen, replace a family member’s white wine with water at dinner.
(Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)(Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Word of the Month
perfidy | PER-fə-dee | noun
• deceitfulness, untrustworthiness
“After the two interns lied about the amount of money they collected for the coffee fund, Keith said he wasn’t surprised by their perfidy.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
Click here for a link to hundreds of audio books available for free from Audible to help make sheltering-in-place a little more fun.
Click here for a link to 11 TV shows that will engage your brain.
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Choose the word that, when inserted in the sentence, best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
Their conversation was unsettling, for the gravity of their topic contrasted so oddly with the ____ of their tone.
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
The word bowl is an old one, and the most basic meaning of the word— a round vessel for liquids that is wider than it is deep —has remained unchanged for over a millennium. The word can be found in Old English dating back to the late tenth century. Bowls are associated with sports because modern stadiums are shaped like bowls, and because of this the stadiums are often given names that include bowl in the title. The first of these was the Yale Bowl was opened in 1914, and it inspired the building of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, in 1922 to host the Tournament of Roses football game, which had been first held on 1 January 1902.
The Rose Bowl football game inspired other ones, which about a decade later were being referred to as bowl games. Bowl games are, with one exception, played between university teams. The exception is the Super Bowl, the championship game of professional American football. In 1966 it was decided that the champions of the two professional football league should play each other, and so the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game was played on January 15, 1967 (in which the NFL’s Green Bay Packers defeated the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs).
Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, facetiously referred to the game as the Super Bowl. The name caught on and in 1970, the football leagues made the phrase Super Bowl the official name of the annual championship game. When Hunt heard this, he said, “I guess it is a little corny, but it looks like we’re stuck with it.”
Dr. Kevin Ryan's business-writing book is available on Amazon.com and qualifies for free shipping.
Answer: Only lightness fits the logic of the sentence because it is contrary to the “gravity” of the tone. Listening to others discuss a grave (or serious) topic in a light-hearted tone would be unsettling and confusing.
Fun Facts Answer
On April Fools Day in France, a common prank is to tape or pin a paper fish on the back of an unsuspecting person. When the fish is discovered, the victim is declared a “Poisson d’Avril” or “the April Fish.”
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