(MoneyWatch) As a writer, I have an advantage that most business professionals don't: I spend a lot of time talking with other writers about the craft of writing. Indeed, I conduct a weekly workshop in which the editors on my staff discuss how recently published articles could be rewritten to be better, more impactful and more interesting. Of course, I know I live in a bubble; most people can't spare the time to deconstruct email, specs, marketing plans and other business writing.
And that's too bad, because no matter what your actual job title, we're all writers. Folks read what we write -- or at least try to. I was pleased to see that the Harvard Business Review recently rounded up a slew of writing tips to help you avoid "anesthetizing your colleagues with bad writing." I've collected the best of the HBR's advice and sprinkled in a few of my own tips.
Don't write in passive voice. There are times when passive voice is unavoidable, but those situations are rare. Many people think that passive voice sounds more formal, but really it doesn't. It just sounds boring. You can detect passive voice in your writing very easily: When it isn't clear who is performing the action in the sentence:
Mistakes were made, versus We made a mistake.
The document was signed by our COO, versus Our COO signed the document.
Use contractions. You might have been taught that contractions aren't professional enough, but I'd contend that's obsolete guidance. In my time as a writer at Microsoft, we started infusing even traditionally stilted Windows help articles with contractions. Granted, you might have to fight with spell-checkers that aren't programmed to recognize contractions, but it's worth it.
Vary the length and complexity of your sentences. Pay attention to the pacing and length of your sentences. Make some short, others long. If all of your sentences are about the same length (either short or long), it's boring.
Avoid acronyms. Even if you're writing to an audience that knows all the acronyms in your vocabulary, they slow down readers and make things harder to parse. Indeed, some people wield acronyms like weapons, demonstrating that the author is more experienced than the reader. Stick to real words whenever possible.
Keep it short. There's a famous quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain (among others): "I apologize for the length of this letter, but I didn't have time to make it shorter." I say it another way when coaching new writers: "Get to the verb." In truth, it's a lot easier to write a lot of words than to tell your story succinctly in fewer words. Look for ways to trim your writing and get to your key message as rapidly and clearly as possible.
What writing tips do you have for your fellow business writers? Sound off in the comments.