An Experiment in Editing: Simple Tips to Become a Better Business Writer

The following is the first in a series of posts inspired by Jason Fried’s post on Signal V. Noise about a writing class he would like to teach. In the hypothetical class, he aimed to show that editing is truly valuable. That’s why the posts get shorter, not just varying in length, he aims to go from the full idea to just the main point of the text. I am going to attempt to do this with several of my posts, as an experiment to see if it helps with my writing. The first attempt is below:

Original Post (One-and-a-bit pages):

This blog is a game-changer, it’s going to disrupt the online content world and create a new, unheard of change in this tired, bloated industry… Actually, my writing is nothing like that, but how many times have you heard that with the word “blog” swapped for the word “company”.

The kind of writing you find on company websites is incredibly clichéd and most of the time boring. This is true for internally facing and externally facing writing. As someone with a blog, I am interested in being a better writer. I am not a business writer by trade, but improvements to any kind of writing are helpful to anyone. You might feel you don’t need to write anything in your job, but you have probably written an email or (for anyone pre-gen-Z) a letter. So, you might as well be better at that, right? Besides, words are what connect people. You can’t get your ideas across to someone without telling them about them, unless you’re a telepath or very talented mime.

Write to Someone Specific

Hey you, Reader, yeah, you! Are you paying attention right now? Okay, good. The first tip is to write to a someone, not to yourself. You know what you mean when you say something, that doesn’t mean a reader does. Know what I’m saying?

The words I say come across more clearly and sound more conversation-ey if I talk directly to you (I hope). Would you prefer that I describe to you how “this makes the writing read more like a personal chat?” or, would you prefer “that the writer of this blog post explain that there is a great benefit to be had, if one were to address a specific audience member, rather than just think aloud?”

Write Exactly as Much as You Need to. No More.

Write Out an Acronym the First Time You Use it

You get to a meeting, everyone is discussing the KPIs, HGTs and GMOs. What. The. Hell? I know maybe one of those acronyms, and I wrote this post! You start to feel stupid, out of the loop. Why does everyone know these words and throw them around so casually? Why don’t I know them? I’d say the fault is theirs, not yours. There’s no need to purposefully, exclude people, from certain information. You’re in this meeting to discuss something, learn something or otherwise communicate ideas to each other. No need to drown someone in codes they don’t understand.

Whilst the example I gave was more silly, there are times in my job as a BSA (Business Systems Analyst) where it can be really helpful to have someone explain the acronym about to be used. I am sure it’s the same for your job. I didn’t even realise SQL was pronounce see-quel when I started…

If you are the one writing in order to share information, make sure everyone knows the acronyms by explaining it the first time you use it, SWIM (See What I Mean?). This tip works for technical jargon too.

Passive Voice and qualifiers are really weak!

I sound stronger when I explain to you that I wrote this post. That I thought up how I was going to say it and then said it, exactly like that. I sat there in my leather armchair, smoking a pipe, surrounded by leather-bound books, pondering my next sentence. I didn’t actually, but it sounds better than “The leather chair was sat in by the author, the pipe was smoked by the author. The books surrounded him and thoughts were had by him”

Another thing that really doesn’t sound very good is a qualifier such as “really” or “very”. Just say it was “amazing” , not “really good” , or say that it was “crap” , rather than “very bad” .

Make It Easy to Scan the Page

How many times have you been reading a lengthy document thinking “I know the point I liked was here somewhere, in this never-ending wall of text. It was at that line, no. Next line. Ah, here’s the bit about the dolphin trainer, so it must be coming up soon, hmmm. Still can’t find it.”?

This is exactly the experience you have had before, dolphin trainer and all. This is what it’s like to try to find a specific point in a solid block of text. Instead, use headings, bullet-points, and the like to make the page easier to scan. People hate reading more than they have to, to find the bit they like. So give them signposts to follow, your readers will silently thank you.

The original article that inspired this post is from Fast Company, I didn’t take down all their points, just the ones that resonated with me the most. Please feel free to read the original article in full, here.

More Succinct Version (Under One Page):

Business writing is often uninformative and boring. The tips below aim to help you make yours much more interesting and easier to understand. Being able to write well in any context is a skill worth having, so even if you aren’t a business writer, I hope you gain something from these tips.

Write to someone specific.

If you write to everyone, you actually get through to no one. Speak to someone. It can be yourself, it can be an imaginary friend or an avatar of the person you wish to speak to. You could even speak aloud to someone and then write down what you said. Conversational language is the easiest to understand. If you are writing for other people to understand (this would apply to most cases, I imagine), then write tosomeone. People don’t talk through each other, they talk to each other, so write like that.

Write exactly as much as you need to. No more.

Passive Voice and Qualifiers are really weak!

When things are explained from the point of view of the thing, it reads and sounds bad. “The armchair was sat in” or “They sat in the armchair”. Which sounds better? You can’t emotionally connect with an armchair (probably). So talk about people, they’re always connecting.

Qualifiers sound weak. Instead of “it was really hot”, try “it was sweltering”. Instead of “I am very angry”, try “I am furious”. Remove “very”, “really” and “well” from your vocabulary.

Make it Easy to Scan the Page.

Readers might not want to read all the beautiful prose you have written. They might have spotted one thing in the headline and they’re looking for the answer to the question now burning a hole in their head. Or they may be re-reading your article and need to find a particular section. Give them bold headers and smaller text in the body of paragraphs so readers can pick out certain sections. Also Main headers should be bigger than sub-headers so they know the order to read in without thinking. The moment your reader struggles with the formatting of your writing, is the moment they are no longer absorbed in your content. Getting people’s attention is hard enough in the digital age, so don’t make it harder for yourself.

A Few Paragraphs (Less than 100 words):

Most business writing is full of cliches, these are boring and don’t give you any real information. Let’s change that.

Write to Someone Specific

Your reader is a single person, not a crowd, write accordingly.

Write as much as you have to. No more.

Passive Voice and Qualifiers are really weak.

Describe what people do, not what things do. People connect to people, not things.

Don’t amplify weak words, learn more interesting words instead.

Make it easy to scan the page

People don’t want to waste time. Save them time. Direct them with headers and formatting.

One Line Version:

To write better, aim for clarity and simplicity.

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