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How To Write Better Business Documents In Plain English

Mar 6, 2008
In the past decade people wrote to impress others, rather than to communicate with them. Many business writers used formal language and multi-syllable words that no one ever said out loud (like "notwithstanding" and "heretofore"). Lawyers still speak and write in this manner, called "legalese," which is a complicated and unnecessary writing style.

Today's business writing style is less formal and far better. You must embrace both clarity and brevity to write properly in our fast-paced, information-bloated world.

Here are five essential tips to write better business documents:

1. WRITE BELOW THE 8th-GRADE LEVEL. Some writers worry that this may insult their readers' intelligence. In reality, no one complains that something is too easy to understand. Studies show that writing below the 8th-grade level achieves the best results. Your readers are not dumb; they just don't have time to process and recall complicated messages.

Here's how to check the readability of your writing when using MS Word: Under "Tools" click "Options" and then "Spelling & Grammar." Select the "Check grammar with spelling" box and the "Show readability statistics" box then click "OK." The next time you complete a spell check, it will display information about the reading level. If the "Flesch-Kincaid grade level" is above 8, edit your document to make it easier to understand. You can also go to www.ReadabilityFormulas.com and use a free readability formulas tester to determine the reading-level of your materials.

2. GET TO THE POINT IMMEDIATELY. As a general rule, state the reason for your correspondence in the first sentence.

Good: "We've filled this position and are not accepting applications."

Bad: "Unfortunately, the position for which you applied has already been filled and we are therefore no longer accepting applications."

3. GET ACTIVE (use active voice, not passive). Writing in passive voice makes you write wordy sentences; instead, write in active voice for clarity and impact.

Active Voice: "We like your ideas and will implement them by the end of the year."

Passive Voice: "The ideas you proposed have been reviewed and found to be acceptable and appropriate. An implementation schedule has been developed with the goal of being completed by the end of the year."

4. USE FEWER WORDS. People are busy; be brief!

Good: "We will not tolerate sexual harassment. Please read the attached policy. Call Mr. Smith if you have questions."

Bad: "This is to inform all employees that sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated under any circumstances by this organization. Be advised that, in order to clarify the company position on this subject, the attached policy has been developed and provided for your reference. Your cooperation in this important matter is appreciated. Please do not hesitate to contact Mr. Smith if he can be of further assistance or provide you with additional information about this issue."

5. INCLUDE A CLEAR CALL TO ACTION. If you are writing for a purpose other than to inform, tell your readers exactly what you want them to do.

Good: "Please sign the attached form in Block 12 and return it to me by June 1st."

Bad: "It is our desire to receive an indication of your concurrence as soon as possible."

Bonus tip:

6. DO NOT REPEAT NUMBERS. Spelling out numbers and then repeating them as digits within parentheses is redundant and unnecessary. Use this basic rule: less than 10 or beginning a sentence, spell it out; more than 10, use digits. Do NOT do both!

Good: "We collected 13 samples."

Bad: "Thirteen (13) samples were collected."

Many writers and non-writers use a plain English editor called StyleWriter (www.StyleWriter-USA.com) to write simply, clearly, and correctly.

In summary, you should write business correspondence in a format and style similar to your verbal communications. TRANSLATION: WRITE LIKE YOU TALK.
About the Author
Brian Scott is a contributing writer for www.LousyWriter.com, a free website that helps writers and non-writers learn about english grammar. He is also a forum moderator at www.WritingAnswers.com, where he helps writers and non-writers fix English writing problems.
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