A Business Writing Primer

  • Basic Rules

    • Less is More

    • Respect the Reader’s Time

    • Break Up Your Text

    • Be Polite

    • Use Formatting to Improve Flow

    • Make Your Writing Actionable

    • Avoid Clichés

  • Resources

Writing is one of the most important life skills you can have. If you’re good at it, the world opens up to you. If you’re not, well, you need a guide like this one.

This will be short. There are many great books you can read, and courses you can take, on becoming a better writer. This isn’t that. This is a quick list of rules and guidelines that can sand your roughest edges, along with some resources to get you started if you want to improve further.

Here we’re going to cover what I consider to be the raw essentials for good writing in a business setting. Again, this won’t be comprehensive, but it should help you significantly if you’re not familiar with these concepts. The focus will be on email and other types of short business communication as opposed to writing long documents, but many of the rules will still apply.

The recurring theme here will be making your writing consumable. You don’t want people to dread reading something you’ve written. You want them to open it, glance at it, and be done with it before they knew what happened. That’s the key—make your writing highly consumable.

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

It’s hard to overstate this rule, and it’s also hard to follow it. Whether you’re writing an email or doing a presentation, you want you points to be crisp. The more fluff you have surrounding them, the more dilluted they’ll be. Resist the temptation to add content, and work to remove more instead.

Try to take your ten paragraphs to five, and your three paragraphs to one. And if you find yourself with more than 20 presentation slides for anything other than a major, dedicated time slot, it’s time to start thinking seriously about what to cut.

It will be hard to force yourself to say less, as the natural tendency is to keep adding more to support your point. Don’t. Say it cleanly at first and let it stand on its own. There are exceptions, e.g., where you may need to have supporting documentation and data, but consider moving that content to an appendix where it can be consumed out of band from your main pitch.

If you follow the first rule, you’ll likely be o.k. here as well, but always keep in mind that your reader doesn’t have time to read what you’ve written. You have an extremely limited window in which to make your point, so don’t waste it with cruft.

Especially with email, be sure to keep your paragraphs only two to four lines long—for a small viewing window—or just a few sentences regardless. And break the paragraphs up distinctly by point. Don’t be afraid to use one short sentence as a paragraph if it is worth stressing.

For illustration of this point, check out a news story on CNN or somewhere: the paragraphs are 1-3 sentences. Why is that? Because if it becomes more than that, you’ve just assigned your reader work. That means your email will likely get deferred or skipped altogether.

People would much rather read five paragraphs of three short sentences each than two big paragraphs. The former lets them fly through quickly, while the latter imposes a burden. Don’t be a burden to your reader. Make it easy for them.

Always open with a greeting—even when you’ve spoken to that person recently, or you don’t have an extremely formal relationship. Starting off with a, “Hi Chris,” really does add an atmosphere of professionalism and style to semi-informal emails. Obviously, if it’s a more formal email you should go with a more formal greeting.

The key point here is to always be presenting—even in email. Greet the person, make your points quickly, and thank them for their time. This will make people much more likely to read your emails instead of ignoring them.

Ideally you wouldn’t be sending someone extremely long emails (see above), but sometimes it’s necessary. When this is the case, you still need to follow the less is more rule. You can do this by breaking the text into sections and following your rule of short paragraphs.

Use short headings to describe the section you’re talking about—maybe 2-3 point sizes larger than your body text—and only put 2-4 short paragraphs within each section.

Another important tip here is to use numbered and bulleted lists whenever possible to convey your points. If you have a choice between sending someone a quick intro and a bulleted list of items, or a few paragraphs describing those things—use the list.

Another thing to mention about formatting is that you should use CAPS, bolding, italics, and other text modifications judiciously. Salt is good, until everything tastes like salt.

One thing I try to do with my writing at work is make sure that I’m providing value in each interaction. Don’t just spew information in random directions; describe what your purpose is and then move towards that goal. Here’s an example:

Unsupervised Learning — Security, Tech, and AI in 10 minutes…

Get a weekly breakdown of what's happening in security and tech—and why it matters.

Notice how short it is, while still being extremely helpful. If you go off on a tangent about how this or that happened, or how you need x or y, then you’re going to lose the reader quickly.

This is especially important in fiction writing, but it’s crucial in business writing as well. Don’t say “cutting edge”, or “best of breed”, or any of the other trampled sayings within your industry. People tend to want to use them because they’re common, but as soon as they become too common they hurt you rather than help you.

Find another way to state your point. The problem with clichés is that they create dead spots in the listeners ear. When they hear those keywords like “holistic marketecture” you’re basically communicating that you’re lazy and that they are free to tune out.

Don’t be lazy. Find another way to say it.

Typography is one of the most neglected aspects of writing in general, and definitely of business writing. The one concept you must absorb on this point is that how things are packaged will affect how they are consumed.

We know this from other disciplines—marketing, wardrobe, dating, etc.—but most fail to apply it to how their writing appears to readers. Remember—you’re always presenting.

The most common typography mistakes

  1. Using a font that is too small: Make sure your font is between 11 and 14 pixels in size. If it’s too large it will appear cartoonish, and make your content appear so as well. And if it’s too small you’ve imposed a burden on your reader, which we know to be bad practice.

  2. Using an amateurish font: The first rule is to avoid certain fonts, which are plainly horrible, such as Arial, Verdana, Tahoma, and other more obvious ones like Comic Sans and Papyrus. To some people this is obvious; to others not so much. If you have a company font that is available, that is well-vetted and conveys authority, consider using that as your email font, as well as the font for your documents. If not, consider using one of the following options: Century Schoolbook, Franklin, Garamond, or Optima. Also, you should have a slight preference towards serif fonts (those with the little connectors on each character) vs. sans serif options (those SANS those connectors).

  3. Having giant blocks of text: As mentioned above, you want to make sure your text is properly broken up so it’s easy to read. This is done by having short, crisp paragraphs, by using numbered and bulleted lists to convey information where appropriate, and by using headings where they can help define structure and breaking points in your ideas (for necessarily longer texts).

These are a few of the most common mistakes to avoid, but to really get an understanding you should read Matthew Butterick’s book on the subject, which I’ve included as one of only three recommended texts in the resources section.

Next I want to cover three resources that I consider indispensable for those who care about writing well. These are absolute must-reads. No exceptions. Reading these two books will improve your writing to an astonishing degree.

The first two will improve your writing in general, with focus on how to say what you need to say as efficiently as possible. The third is the book on typography that I mentioned above. All three are strongly recommended.

I hope this guide has helped you.

Related posts: