Tips for a Smoother Transition to Business Writing

February 2024
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The writing that we all did in high school and college was different from the writing that we need to produce in the business world. As a result, some professionals have a difficult time making the transition to business writing.

In the workshops that I present, I cover the differences — and the similarities — between academic writing and business communications.

In school, our teachers gave us writing assignments with required lengths. “Students, you need to write six pages about America's involvement in World War II,” they might say.

Typically, students will then conduct their research and write enough to fill four pages. And then they’ll write long, wordy sentences to fill the other two pages. Those long sentences turn into lengthy paragraphs.

Unlike in business writing, the goal of writing assignments in school is for students to show what they have learned. To that end, students will often use the most complex vocabulary words they can think of, in an effort to impress their teachers.

Students also state their conclusions or main points at the end of their papers, using phrases such as “In summation” or “As a result of the above.”

Clearly, none of these approaches to writing school papers are suited to business communications.

Writing at work

Whereas students are encouraged to make their school papers long and involved, in the business world our bosses and co-workers don’t want to read lengthy memos and emails. They want succinct communication.

Research from Litmus shows the amount of time someone spends looking at an email has dropped steadily during the past four years and is now 9 seconds. After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” I’m convinced it’s even less.

In business writing, the shorter the sentences and paragraphs are, the better. Studies have shown that short sentences (20 words or less) and short paragraphs (five lines or less) are easier to read and comprehend. As William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White advise in their seminal book about writing, “The Elements of Style,” “Omit needless words.”

As author Morgan Housel has written, “School: your paper must be a minimum five pages. Real world: explain it to me in seven seconds or I’m out of here.” To quote Parry Hedrick, founder of Crackle PR in Boston: “School lied to us. In PR, in business, in life: be succinct or be irrelevant.”

In business communications, we don’t know our readers’ language skills or education levels, so we should stick to a simple vocabulary. According to the Policy Circle, a nonprofit that seeks to boost civil discourse and civic engagement, “In the United States, 54% of American adults read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level, and nearly one in five adults reads below a third-grade level.” As Strunk and White advise: “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and available.”

In the business world, we also need to make sure that the tone of what we write is appropriate for the audience.

Unlike with school papers, which reiterate their main points at the end, in our business memos and emails we should state our conclusions at the top. The U.S. military calls this a “BLUF” (bottom line up front).

In “The Little Red Writing Book,” author Brandon Royal writes that it’s “human nature, and it seems logical, that we should conclude at the end rather than the beginning. But writing should be top-down, structured in the inverted-pyramid style.”

Unlike with school papers, the goal of business writing is not to show what we’ve learned, but rather to get results. Maybe the company needs the reader to sign up for something, to stop doing something, to attend an event, to make a purchase, or to complete some other activity. We’re writing to achieve a positive outcome for our organization.

As workshop leader, author and Strategies & Tactics columnist Rob Biesenbach has said, business communication “is about more than just sharing information; it’s about changing behaviors and getting results.”

Exploring qualities that school papers and business writing share

Despite major differences between how we learn to write in school and how we need to write in the business world, some elements remain essential for both writing styles. In academic and business writing, we must always use proper grammar, punctuation and capitalization. Whether writing for school or for an internal newsletter, we must also avoid typos and misspellings.

For professionals who have a difficult time making the transition to business writing, taking classes or hiring a coach can help. As with writing in general, reading good books also tends to benefit your corporate communications. For other recommended titles to help you improve your business writing, consider the following:

• “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

• “The Little Red Writing Book” by Brandon Royal

• “The AMA Handbook of Business Writing” by Kevin Wilson and Jennifer Wauson

• “E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication” by Dianna Booher

• “HBR Guide to Better Business Writing” by Bryan A. Garner

• “The Only Business Writing Book You’ll Ever Need” by Laura Brown

Return to Current Issue Writing & Storytelling | February 2024
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