Friday, March 31, 2023

How to improve your business writing

The need for better business writing

Let's face it, a lot of business writing is just bad; you wouldn't read it if you didn't have to. You're left wondering whether the person who wrote it hated writing it as much as you hated reading it.

The problems are well-known: turgid prose, needless complexity, cryptic meanings, pseudo-academic obscurity, and so on.

Annoyingly, books on business writing aren't much help for improving business writing. They explain the difference between an abstract and an introduction and they talk about the need for structure, but that's about it. Style guides are of little use too; they give you advice on how to abbreviate American states but don't help you make your reports readable.

A better type of writing

But business writing doesn't have to be like this. What if I told you there was a style of writing that people:

  • voluntarily read 
  • described as "sparkling", "insightful", or "game-changing" 
  • won Nobel prizes for.

Wouldn't you want to know what it was?

Of course, I'm talking about fiction writing.

Before you object, let me tell you something: fiction writers do a lot of things that business writers should do. They do it so well, they make a living from it. 

Fiction writing basics

Let's look at the basics of what fiction writers do.

Write for their audience. Most, if not all writers know who their target audience is and what they want. Thriller writers, literary fiction writers, and romance writers tailor their writing for the people who buy their books. If they don't, they won't get published and won't get paid. The first lesson for business writers: know your audience and what they want to hear.

Have a good story to tell. No one likes a boring story. Some fiction writers can take a dull situation and turn it into something amazing through insight and storytelling; they can make the ordinary exciting. The second lesson for business writers is: tell your audience an engaging story.

Organize your story. Lots of business writing books tell you about paragraphs and structure, but fiction writing books go much further. There are all kinds of narrative structures available to you; you can tell a story in reverse chronological order, from different character perspectives, with different-length chapters, and so on. Of course, there's also the choice of point of view. Stories don't have to follow a linear time narrative and your business report doesn't have to be linear either. The third lesson for business writers is: use the appropriate organization to tell your story.

Use appropriate language. This is the part I'm saddest about. Fiction writers use all kinds of ways to make their stories engaging:

  • using the active voice rather than the passive voice
  • sentence length
    • use shorter sentences for action and longer sentences for thought
    • vary sentence length for variety
  • avoid using adverbs (Stephen King!)
  • use simple words rather than complex ones (unless the complex word makes a particular point)
  • remove unnecessary words
  • use alliteration, anaphora, tricolon, and other rhetorical techniques
  • ...and so on.

What was the last report that made you think? What was the last report that made you feel anything at all? What was the last report that used alliteration, anaphora, and tricolon crescens to persuade you? The fourth lesson for business writers is: be artful about the language you use to tell your story. 

What to read next

There are a lot of great books on writing fiction. Here are just a few I recommend.

  • Stephen King, On writing.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin. Steering the craft.

Ian Fleming wrote about writing. What he said has aged badly in many places, but his underlying message is clear: he wrote for his audience and he thought deeply about what they wanted. Here's the piece.

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