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3: Business Writing Style

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    Chapter Objectives

    The purpose of this chapter is to:

    • Explain the concept of plain language
    • Discuss strategies to improve clarity in writing
    • Highlight the difference between active and passive voice
    • Emphasize the importance of positive tone
    • Present ways to write inclusively

    Plain Language in Business Writing

    Business is about people. Business writers facilitate sales of products and services, purchases of supplies and merchandise, management and operations of units and departments, and communication with clients and customers. To be in business is to be surrounded by people who interact with you, who require something from you.

    Communication is the connection between people. As long as one person is sending a message and another person is understanding it, communication is happening. A successful professional builds and maintains relationships, completes tasks, directs teams, and expresses ideas by communicating effectively. To be successful, you will need to be an effective communicator: you need to be understood.

    A key skill in any professional setting is the ability to use plain language. Plain language writing--and speaking--will help you to get your message across clearly and concisely. This chapter will introduce you to the principles of plain language.

    Source: Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

    Clarity and Conciseness

    Word selection and phrasing leads to successfully transferring meaning from the sender to the receiver. Careful word selection enhances the writer’s reputation and reflects the business’s reputation. Think of the advice a home seller receives before an open house. They will often have bread baking or apple cider simmering to create an aroma that makes the house feel like a home. This small step might help a potential buyer appreciate the house more. Solid writing skills can have the same effect for the employee. The employee gains respect and appreciation because of writing skills that project credibility and confidence.

    When trying to enhance your reputation, it is tempting to want to use complex words in order to sound sophisticated. Unfortunately, using complex vocabulary may obscure your ideas and potentially damage your credibility. Remember the focus of your writing should be on the reader who needs to understand your message (the "you-attitude"). Instead of focusing on complex words, concentrate on expressing accurate content with precise, unambiguous words so that the message is transmitted clearly. Be precise while understandable.

    Avoid Use Instead
    The lawyer was trying to obfuscate details during his opening speech. The lawyer was trying to confuse the details during his opening speech.
    The remuneration the contractor receives is commensurate with the time and materials used. The pay the contractor receives is equal to the time and materials used.

    Choose common words instead of difficult and complicated words to make your message accessible to your audience. Inappropriate word choices will get in the way of your message. For this reason, use language that is accurate and appropriate for the writing situation. Omit jargon (technical words and phrases common to a specific profession or discipline) and slang (invented words and phrases specific to a certain group of people) unless your audience and purpose call for such language. For example, sometimes using jargon is fine as long as you can safely assume your readers also know the jargon. If you are a paralegal writing to others in the legal profession, using legal jargon is perfectly fine. On the other hand, if you are writing for people outside the legal profession, using legal jargon would most likely be confusing. Although lawyers must use legal jargon in papers they prepare for customers, those papers are designed to navigate within the legal system and may not be clear to readers outside of this demographic. Therefore, when communicating with the customer, such language should be avoided.

    Also avoid using outdated words and phrases, such as "dial the number" and be straightforward in your writing rather than using euphemisms (a gentler but sometimes inaccurate way of saying something). Be clear about the level of formality each piece of writing needs and adhere to that level.

    At the heart of business is the idea that "time is money." This may lead you to believe that shorter message are always better; however, concise writing is not just fast or short. Your writing must always balance the clarity of the message with efficiency. In order to write straight forward sentences that are appropriate and effective in business communication, there are a few things to keep in mind.

    Rule Example and Explanation Revision and Explanation

    Be careful not to string together too many ideas in the same sentence. A sentence like this is not only confusing but can also become boring or confusing to read.

    Michael copy edited the report, and the data tables were compiled, and the graphics looked wonderful.

    All three of these activities are part of the completion of a report, but they don't really belong in the same sentence.

    Michael copy edited the report while the rest of the team compiled the data tables. The graphics looked wonderful.

    By using a connector other than "and," the sentences actually gives more information: that the copy editing and compiling happened at the same time. Note that if we replace "while" with "after which," for example, we would be telling a somewhat different story.

    Also, it is great that the graphics are impressive, but that idea does not belong in the same sentence.

    Starting a sentence with a dependent clause can sometimes bury the important news at the back of the sentence.

    Think about the emotions a reader goes through when faced with a sentence like this:

    While we suffered a dismal first quarter because of supply-chain issues, and our stock prices wobbled a lot thanks to fluctuations in the Japanese market that caused the company to begin targeting employees for layoffs, the executive team is happy to report that we are on track for a profitable year.

    The executive team is happy to report that we are on track for a profitable year even though we suffered a dismal first quarter because of supply chain issues...

    Notice the difference when the sentence tells the important news first.

    Clear is good; simple can be mind-numbing, so vary your sentence structures.

    Imagine an entire report full of this:

    Profits were up. This is good. Production increased by six percent. Employees received bonuses in two of our quarters. The stock split.

    Even though you are reading excellent news, you are about to keel over from the monotony, aren't you? Writing cleanly and concisely doesn't mean writing like a robot. Think about how the small nuggets of information relate to one another, and combine them in sentences that make sense, put the important news first, and show that you take pride in writing well.

    We are happy to report that profits are up, and our shares have split because of a six-percent increase in production. As a result, our hard-working employees were rewarded with bonuses in two of four quarters.

    Not only is it possible to read this passage without dozing off, it also gives more information by showing the relationship among the pieces of information given.

    Finally, watch for wordiness. As you write and edit, ask yourself whether you are using several words when there’s one perfectly good one that would suffice.

    Type of Redundancy Example Revision

    Redundant pairs

    each and every

    first and foremost

    full and complete




    Redundant expressions

    the month of July

    fellow colleagues

    personal opinion

    past memories





    Wordy Phrases

    at a later time

    on a daily basis

    due to the fact that

    in reference to






    take into consideration

    make a recommendation

    make an effort

    perform a review





    Positive Tone

    As we already stated, business writing should be clear and concise. Take care, however, that your document does not turn out as an endless series of short, choppy sentences. Keep in mind also that "concise" does not have to mean "blunt" – you still need to think about your tone and the audience for whom you are writing. Consider the following examples:

    After carefully reviewing this proposal, we have decided to prioritize other projects this quarter.
    Nobody liked your project idea, so we are not going to give you any funding.

    The first version is a weaker statement, emphasizing facts not directly relevant to its point. The second version provides the information in a simple and direct manner. But you don't need to be an expert on style to know that the first phrasing is diplomatic and respectful (even though it's less concise) as compared with the second version, which is unnecessarily harsh and likely to provoke a negative reaction.

    Unless there is a specific reason not to, use positive language wherever you can. Positive language benefits your writing in two ways. First, it creates a positive tone, and your writing is more likely to be well-received. Second, it clarifies your meaning, as positive statements are more concise. Take a look at the following negatively worded sentences and then their positive counterparts, below.

    Examples of Negative and Positive Sentences

    • Negative: Your car will not be ready for pick up until Friday.
    • Positive: Your car will be ready for pick up on Friday.
    • Negative: Your vacation is not approved until the manager clears it.
    • Positive: Your vacation will be approved when the manager clears it.
    • Negative: Don't forget to turn in your request for reimbursement.
    • Positive: Remember to turn in your request for reimbursement.