Writing an Effective Business Document
By Stacie Heaps
Though the format for writing has changed, people are doing as much writing (if not more) than they ever have. Writing effectively allows you to express your ideas clearly and coherently, and it is an essential part of corresponding with others in the workforce. In the professional world, being able to write well is a key to being successful in nearly every field.
Whether you like it or not, most jobs require writing—e-mails, letters, memos, reports, analyses, project summaries, product descriptions, and the list goes on. The ability to write well is essential in obtaining a job (think résumés and cover letters), in performing the job, and in being promoted. Those who do not write well and who make obvious grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors are at a disadvantage in the corporate world. To preserve your professional image, make sure that your writing is as effective as possible by following these guidelines:
Know the Purpose and Scope of Your Document
Before you begin writing, know the purpose for which you are writing and what you want your document to accomplish. As you write, keep your primary objective in mind (you could even type it at the top of your document and refer to it throughout the writing process, if needed; you can delete it when you are finished with the initial draft), and never stray from it. However, if in the course of your writing you discover that your focus has changed, that’s okay. Simply make sure to revise your writing as needed to reflect your new purpose in order to maintain a clear, coherent document.
Tell readers early on how they will benefit from reading your document—what they will be able to accomplish, what information they will be able to gain, what product or service they will be able to purchase that will make their lives better or easier, or in what other way they will be able to benefit from reading your document..
Identify (and Write to) Your Audience
Knowing to whom you are writing will help you determine the tone and content of your document. If you’re not exactly sure who your audience is, ask yourself who you are writing the document for or who is most likely to benefit from what you are writing. If you are writing with the intent of selling a product or service to someone or promoting a cause, you may want to ask yourself: What age are my intended readers? What’s their background? Where do they live? What stage of life are they in? What are their interests? What is important to them? These and similar questions will help you to target and write to your audience.
As you write, do be careful of technical and other jargon, acronyms, and abbreviations. Unless you are writing for a very specialized field, it is best to avoid jargon and to spell out acronyms and abbreviations on their first use. No matter your audience, you generally don’t need to be overly stuffy or formal; a normal, conversational tone will usually do the job.
Understand the Needs of Your Reader
Once you have identified your audience, try to anticipate the information that your reader will want or need, and identify and include that information in your document as you write. Also try to address any potential arguments or concerns readers might have, and address those, as well.
Organize Your Document
Follow the standard format for the type of document you are writing, whether it be a memo, letter, e-mail, résumé, report, advertisement, project summary, or other communication.
For longer documents, start with an outline, and work from there. The beauty of word processors is that you can easily restructure your ideas later if necessary. Creating an outline helps you determine early on if you are including all of the information that you need to. To help you be as complete as you need to be, ask yourself who, what, where, when, why, and how. “Who am I writing to?” “What is my purpose?” And so on. Though you will not always need to answer all of these questions in your documents, you will probably want to include information to answer most of them most of the time.
In your introduction, tell the reader the purpose of your document and what you want him or her to do. In subsequent paragraphs, group related information together, and generally include only one key point in each paragraph or section. When listing information in paragraph format, use first, second, third, and so forth, or use a bulleted list, in order to help your reader easily follow the organization of your document.
For longer works, also use headings and subheadings to indicate the sections of your document. Such visible structure allows readers to find the information that they need quickly and easily.
In your conclusion, restate the main purpose of your document, and tell the reader what you want her or him to do with the information you are providing, whether that be to buy a product or service, change or adopt a company policy, give you a promotion, etcetera.
Identify the Benefits to the Reader
Especially for advertising, sales copy, and other documents meant to persuade, identify and emphasize the benefits of a product, service, or policy, for example, rather than just its features.
Not: Our newest line of express buses has built-in Wi-Fi, AC power outlets, and individual reading lights. But: With our newest line of express buses, you’ll be able to work, or play, with ease. Browse the Internet, chat with friends online, play your favorite online games, or check your e-mail using our free Wi-Fi; read your favorite novels or do your work using individual reading lamps (or sleep while the guy next to you reads); or charge your cell phone or plug in your MP3 player or laptop using our AC power outlets. You can do it all with ease on the new express buses!
Write concisely. Busy people in the workforce don’t have time to read any more than they have to. Use short words and sentences rather than long ones when possible, and eliminate unnecessary information. (For more information on this subject, see the article on “Conciseness.”)
However, don’t be so brief that you neglect to include necessary information. Make sure that you don’t inadvertently leave out any important instructions, deadlines, contact information, statistics or other evidence, or the like.
Substantiate Your Claims
Make sure that your information is complete and accurate. Check your facts before you submit your information, and use statistics, examples, dates, and similar information to back your claims. However, if you use graphs, charts, tables, or other graphical elements, make sure they add meaningful information to your document and are not just needless filler.
After you have used a spell checker and grammar checker (though grammar checkers are not completely reliable), take the time to proofread your document. Look for omitted words, misspelled homonyms (it’s for its), and wrong punctuation. Check that sentences are grammatical. Make sure the document is error free, clear, and concise. It may be helpful to have a colleague, co-worker, or even a professional writer or editor review your work before you deliver it.
If in proofreading you find omissions or organizational problems, don’t be afraid to revise your document substantially if needed. Having a more effective document is usually worth the extra time and effort.
If possible, leave enough time (a day or more) to set your document aside and come back to it later to review it one more time with fresh eyes and greater perspective before you submit it.
Effective writing is essential in the business world. It’s important that your writing be clear, coherent, and targeted to meet the needs of your intended audience. Sloppy, careless, unprofessional, or incomplete communication can potentially detract from your professional image, cost you sales or investment money, prevent you from being hired or promoted, or even make you legally liable. For these and other reasons, it is imperative that you take the time and exert the effort to make your written communication as good as possible.