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Hints for better business writing

Posted on 30th January 2011

Rather than boring you all with my words of wisdom, I thought it was about time to get a guest blogger in. Laura Heggie is a business writer with a number of years' experience of writing winning tenders across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and here she gives her advice on how to write better business material.

The world of a business writer is strikingly different from that of other writing professionals. A journalist's work is edited, proofed and set by a sub-editor. A novelist or factual author's work goes through a dizzying process of rewrites and proofs before being passed over to an experienced editor and a proofreader. As for a business writer? Well, it's pretty much you, no safeguards and a looming deadline.

So how can you make what you write stand out?

Confidence, client focus and clarity. These three form the foundation of good business writing, and will make your business proposals more persuasive and effective.

Confidence
This should not just mean confidence in the quality of the product or service that you are trying to sell. It should also apply to the language that you use in your business documents. So many poor business documents are infected by their author's desire to sound 'business-like' and 'grown-up', and as a result pretentious and in some cases archaic language creeps in. 'Whilst' and 'amongst', words that every style guide would class as dated, are repeat offenders: 'while' and 'among' don't sound quite so grandiose, but they are the kind of clear, everyday words that you should always prefer. Why say 'utilise' if you mean 'use'? The Economist Style Guide tells its journalists to aim for 'plain spoken authority': using plainer language will give clients and consumers confidence in your products or services.

Client focus
This means making sure that what you have written is appropriate for the client or customer. Many businesses have standard paragraphs and information that go in every tender, and although this can save time, always read through to check that it's appropriate and applies to your client. Doing a bit of research into your client or target market will also pay dividends: have they had a recent problem that your product or service would have solved? If you don't have the resources to subscribe to one of the big news services, a look back through Google News could find something interesting around which you can create a story. This is where you can be really persuasive, so don't be tempted to bung in your standard information and hope that your pricing will do the work for you. I once had a very candid off-the-record conversation with a client who told me that my company was winning a large proportion of their tenders not because of our prices, but because we were the only company whose proposals didn't seem to have been cut and pasted from old proposals, so they trusted us to tailor our service. Lazy writing suggests a lazy business.

Clarity
Really good business writing needs to convey clear ideas and accurate information to a client or consumer. My tips for clarity are to keep things relevant, re-read what you've written carefully for mistakes, avoid jargon or too many unexplained technical terms, keep sentences to a reasonable length, and prefer the active over the passive voice (for example, 'We will offer your business excellent service', rather than 'An excellent service will be offered to your business'). If the document is really important to your business, hiring a proofreader to check what you've written could pay for itself many times over: can you guess which one I would recommend?

Written by Kate Haigh.