So you want to be a business writer, eh?
You probably don’t. You probably dread writing. But you probably have to do some writing for your job, and you can’t always hire a professional copywriter to do your dirty work. So here are ten DIY writing tips for those times when you have to go it alone.
1) Get attention, like, now.
You cannot communicate anything to anyone unless you have her attention. Try to start your communications with something that disarms or jolts or entertains your reader in some way. Tell a joke. Lead with a shocking statistic. Give her something she has to keep reading. Above all, don’t be boring.
2) Choose one message.
Yes, business communications are sometimes complicated. Sometimes proposals have all sorts of sections and subsections. But your readers’ time and attention spans are not unlimited, and even complicated business documents should be driving to one goal: “hire us” or “let’s change our procedure” or “come to our event.” Make sure your focus is clear throughout your communication. Your central message should shine through in everything you write.
3) Put in the most important stuff early and often.
Every copywriter worth his MacBook knows that the headline is the most important part of an ad; about four times as many people read headlines as read body copy. The same is true for almost any sort of business communication. In fact, you might remember this three-step rule from high school speech class:
1) Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em.
2) Tell ’em.
3) Tell ’em what you told ’em.
The same approach works for business writing: lead with a summary, make your case, and recap and reinforce at the end.
4) Write the way you talk.
Most people freeze up when they have to write. Somehow, the words that flow naturally out of their mouths in conversation get stifled when writing is involved. People get self-conscious, and their prose becomes stiff and lifeless. Sometimes, it takes on an air of formality that’s very much unlike common speech. But that’s a poor way to communicate. Most writing does not have to be formal. In most cases, if you simply write what you’d say something to a person sitting across the table from you, you’ll be just fine.
5) Break the rules…
You can start sentences with conjunctions. (And I mean it.) You can use sentence fragments. (All the time.) Go ahead and end sentences with prepositions. (I’m not making this up.) You don’t have to be a slave to the rules of grammar when you write for business–especially when you’re writing marketing communications. If your writing sounds good in your ear, it’s probably okay on the page.
6) …but know which rules you can break and which you shouldn’t.
On the other hand, there are some grammar rules you should never break. Comma splices are ugly and awful. Your subjects and verbs have to agree. You should know the difference between “its” and “it’s.” You should know how to use punctuation. These are rules because they enhance communication. Fortunately, if you feel as if you need a refresher course, there are lots of lively books out there.
7) Just write. Then write again.
It’s easy to get stuck on a writing project, especially at the start. What most writers recommend is that you just get started—just start putting words on the page (or screen). They don’t have to be perfect; in fact, they can be terrible. You can always change them later. For the initial draft, though, it’s important to turn off the internal editor who’s telling you that you should find better words or fix that typo you see. Writing and rewriting are separate, equally important tasks.
8) Remember that people are emotional beings.
Accountants are people. Attorneys are people. Doctors are people. Engineers are people. As people, we respond emotionally to messages before we respond intellectually. Much of business writing is factual. But even factual writing doesn’t have to be unemotional. Don’t use the excuse that your audience is too technical or too specialized or too serious for emotional appeals.
9) Put your power words at the end.
It seems contrary to common sense. But it’s true: the words at the ends of your sentences carry the most weight, as do the sentences at the ends of your paragraphs, as do the items in your list. Sentences should keep building toward powerful conclusions, paragraphs should build toward important points, and your points together should build toward a convincing argument.
10) Always use Oxford commas.
I’ve ranted plenty on this topic, and I’m not going to do so again. I think you always need the Oxford comma—the last comma in a series before the “and”—for clarity. (For example: “The twins, Sally, and John are going to the market,” as opposed to “The twins, Sally and John are going to the market.”) Lots of stylebooks disagree with me. They’re wrong.