Wake-up Call: Keep your writing simple and to the point

It is important to focus on your core message and not let anything detract from that

“The best writing is so transparent that it doesn’t obscure the underlying message”

“The best writing is so transparent that it doesn’t obscure the underlying message”

 

When I read a piece of business writing, whether it’s a proposal, a report or a simple email, I’m turned off by people who have invested more energy in trying to sound smart than in trying to be smart. Ideally, I would like to read communications where I don’t notice the writing at all.

The best writing is so transparent that it doesn’t obscure the underlying message. You can achieve that in your writing by investing in great content and then stripping away anything that detracts from it.

How do you make your content great? Before crafting a single sentence, you determine the purpose and desired outcome of your communication. You go beyond the facts and information you’re transmitting and push yourself to clarify what you want your audience to think, to feel and to do after they have read your message.

If you have crafted a message with a clear outcome in mind, you’re way ahead of most people. Now, go back over your language and grammar and look for opportunities to simplify and tighten your writing. Fix anything that detracts from the core message.

Here are a few things to check:

– Eliminate “fancy-pants” words: If you communicate effectively, you reduce the distance between you and your reader. Unfortunately, many people use language in a way that increases that distance and weakens the connection. There is no faster way to distance your audience than by using fancy words to try to impress them.

– Beware of using words incorrectly: Business jargon often uses words imprecisely: think “utilise” or “methodology”. Any time you are inclined to use a word that makes you feel smarter than the person you’re communicating with, choose again.

– Make bulleted lists flow: Using bullet points can help you be succinct and help your reader focus on the most important information. Unfortunately, it’s common to read lists where the parts of speech don’t match. If you’re using a bulleted list, make sure each bullet has the same grammatical form.

– Use an active voice: The one surefire way to make your writing more pompous is to use a passive voice, meaning the object of an action becomes the subject of the sentence. The easiest way to spot the passive voice in your writing is to look for sentences with “is”, “am”, “are”, “were”, “be”, “being” or “been”. See if you can rewrite these sentences with a verb other than “to be”.

If you use an active voice, you will be more interesting to your reader. You will also give your reader more information and leave them feeling that you understand your accountability – all good things in business writing.

Great writing for the sake of great writing is best left to poets and novelists. Great business writing should deliver its content without getting in the way. Invest your energy in choosing words that will inspire the actions you’re looking for and strip away anything that will detract from your core message.

Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016

Liane Davey is co-founder of 3COze

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