Ten Tips to Improve Your Business Writing

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Everyone has to put a document out there in the world at some point. Maybe it’s your curriculum vitae, a brochure for your business, a report, your website . . . in each situation you are selling yourself and your business.

I’ve seen promotional material that has obviously cost a fortune in design and printing fees, and that equally obviously hadn’t been proofread. Ouch.

Promotional material can have a warm, friendly tone; it can reflect your own voice and personality; it can provide helpful information about your products and services. But if there’s a typo or two, if it’s badly written, if it’s long-winded, if the language is not appropriate for the context, it’s not going to look professional. And looking professional is generally what we want to do.

Here are ten tips to improve your business writing.

What to think about

  1. Consider your audience.
    Your grocery list doesn’t need proofreading. Focus your time, attention, and resources on the documents that will tell the world who you are.
  2. Keep some things to yourself.
    Before you say anything, decide how much your audience needs to know. Just because you have information doesn’t mean your reader needs it. Longer documents can be expensive (think editing, printing, and translation costs), but the biggest cost to you is when the reader gets bored and quits. Don’t tell us everything you’ve learned about the breeding habits of mice when all we want to know is how much it will cost to get rid of them.

Small mistakes to watch for

  1. It’s
    You don’t have to be Captain Grammar to know the difference between it’s and its, but you do need to pay attention and look at every single occurrence. It’s always means it is. Check it.
  2. Subject-verb agreement
    The apple is red. Easy. But in complex sentences, things can get hairy. Look carefully to see what the subject is—it’s not necessarily next to the verb. Decide whether it’s one thing or more, and check that the verb fits. Again, the point is to read the piece over thoughtfully.
  3. Dangling participles
    Swinging from tree to tree on long, hairy arms, I saw the orangutan. Well, no. I don’t have long, hairy arms. The –ing word (Swinging) and the subject (I) have to match. I saw the orangutan swinging from tree to tree on long, hairy arms.
  4. Parallelism
    All the items in a list should follow the same pattern. Writers start out with good intentions, but by the end of the list they’re thinking about the next point, and they lose focus. I have three favourite activities: skydiving, sitting down with a good cup of tea, and I love walking Fluffy and Sausage. It was all going so well until we got to the last one. Skydiving, sitting, and I love? Fix it or take it out. And speaking of things to take out . . .
  5. Cut, cut, cut.
    Every single time you can make the text shorter without changing the tone or meaning, every time you can cut a word or use a shorter one . . . do.
  6. Wait.
    When you’ve finished, if these words are winging their way into the public sphere, stop. Set them aside, at least overnight. Fresh eyes work better.

When to call for help

  1. Call a friend.
    Call lots of friends. Ask them nicely. Call your mom. If the electrician’s in the office, get her to have a look. You don’t need to agree with everyone’s feedback, but you can take it all in and follow up on the bits that make sense to you. At that point the process might be finished. Or . . .
  2. Hire an editor.
    If your document will be published or widely distributed, you may want to consider hiring an editor. Look for someone who is qualified, experienced, and professionally engaged. Don’t be afraid to say you aren’t sure what the difference is between copyediting and proofreading, or what kind of service you’re looking for—do you want only spelling and grammar corrected, or are you looking for advice on style? Be prepared to send a sample. Explain your budget, your timelines, and your requirements as clearly as possible.

The words you put out there are the ones that build your reputation with clients, so choose them wisely!

Claire Wilkshire has a PhD in English and an extensive background in writing and editing. She owns Claire Wilkshire Language Services (www.clairewilkshire.com), a business that specializes in editing, translation, and language training. Feel free to email Claire for more information (editor@nf.sympatico.ca), or to send her grammar questions: she’d be happy to answer them!

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