Like most novice writers in the workplace, I carried on doing what I’d been trained to do since secondary school – writing up experiments and essays.
But there are some key differences. Understanding these can make the difference between your reports, proposals and emails being effective – or not.
At school and college you are writing for a limited audience – often a teacher or professor, who knows at least as much about the subject in question as you do.
Business documents usually have multiple audiences. A report, proposal, business case or bid is likely to be read by any number of people with various functional backgrounds, priorities, technical knowledge and language levels.
Knowing who is going to read your document and what they need to get from it is key. You may need different sections for different readers – an executive summary for decision-makers, for example. The structure, language, level of detail and style may very be different here to sections aimed at technical or operational staff.
Inclusive vs exclusive
The purpose of most academic writing is to dazzle the reader with your wide knowledge of the subject. It is inclusive in content, to maximize your chances of picking up precious marks.
There are no marks in business writing. Business environments are busy and readers are often distracted. They value documents that get to the point quickly. To be effective your writing therefore needs to be exclusive and concise, so that key points stand out.
Long-winded and passive sentences are replaced with short, punchy, active ones: ‘we recommend’ rather than ‘it is recommended.’ Every word earns its place as waffle dilutes the message.
Invert the structure for business writing
For the same reason, good business documents turn the chronological academic structure upside down. Start with conclusions and recommendations, rather than with background and methodology.
This doesn’t mean a rigorous methodology isn’t important, but the details are of less interest to decision-makers. It may even belong in the appendix. Seriously – in terms of detail, be prepared to kill your darlings.
Skimming and scanning readers
Academic readers, arguably, have time to read your document from start to finish.
Not so the business reader. Most executives spend less than two minutes reading any business document.
Many will skim or scan your document like a newspaper, looking for ‘headline’ information. Some may delve into the detail in some sections, depending on their individual priorities. If they don’t see something compelling on the first page, they may not read any further.
Therefore your document has to be easy to skim or scan. Break up the text with headings, sub-headings, lists and graphics.
Keep paragraphs short and don’t cram words onto the page – leave plenty of white space and margins.
Good business writing does mean that you’ll have to unlearn some skills and learn new ones. But the pay-off is that these new skills will serve you well throughout your career, in whatever medium.