No matter what your profession, chances are you spend a good deal of time crafting documents to communicate or persuade—letters, emails, reports, presentations, descriptions of your product or service, newsletters, etc.
Avoid the following five common writing mistakes—and your written documents will be clear, persuasive, and will deliver you better results.
Mistake 1: Using big, impressive-sounding words
The English language contains roughly a million words. But the average adult knows only about 10,000 of them. Simple words work best.
Many people think their written work will appear more professional with academic or legal words—“hereinafter,” “utilize,” “as per your request.” But stuffy verbiage like this only distracts from your message, and in business writing your ultimate goals are clarity and persuasiveness. Some examples:
|Don’t use…||when you mean…|
|I am of the opinion that||I believe|
After endeavoring to ascertain the origins of the problems within the customer service department, I am of the opinion that these issues necessitate more training, and, as per your request for suggestions, I recommend that new programs be implemented forthwith.
when you mean…
After searching for the source of the problems in our customer service department, I think the issue is poor training. The solution, I believe, is a better training program.
Mistake 2: Using several eye-catching fonts and FORMATS
If you want to call attention to a point in a written document, write your point more strongly. Don’t dress it up with capitalization, italics, bold, underline, different fonts or colors, larger type or other visual enhancements.
This actually has the opposite effect of your goal: It makes everything on the page look less important and distracts from your message.
A good rule of thumb for your text in a document:
– Use a single font throughout the entire document
– Use only two type sizes (one for headers, the other for body copy)
– Use only one type of text enhancement—for example, bold for headers
Mistake 3: Writing big, blocky paragraphs
Imagine: You return to your office and find two letters on your desk. One is a series of short, two- and three-line paragraphs. The other is written as one long paragraph, over half a page, singe-spaced. Which will you read first?
Use short paragraphs.
Big, uninterrupted blocks of text are such a turnoff visually that we often simply avoid reading them altogether.
Again, in business writing, your ultimate goal is to be clear and persuasive—and you can’t get your message across clearly and persuasively if people don’t read what you’ve written.
As a general rule, try to keep your paragraphs to four lines—preferably no more than three.
Mistake 4: Writing too much
Ideally, your business document should be exactly as long as necessary to clearly and persuasively make your case—and not a single word longer.
It probably comes in part from our training in school—“This paper must be five pages, no less”—but many business professionals erroneously believe that the longer their document is, the more important it will appear and the more effective it will be. Not true.
Remember, your reader’s time is important, and keeping your document to the minimum length possible shows you respect their time. Also, the longer your document is, the more of a chore it will seem. You don’t want your reader going into your document already disliking it.
A good strategy for keeping documents as short as possible:
- Write a first draft that includes everything that seems relevant.
- Go through your completed draft, ruthlessly cutting anything that doesn’t make your case stronger or otherwise justify its space.
Mistake 5: Forgetting to sum it all up
Always remember, the key to good communication is clarity. At the end of any business document, you should summarize the main points you’ve made.
Like writing in short, easy-to-read paragraphs, providing a summary helps make your business writing clearer, shows respect for your reader’s time, and increases the likelihood your reader will act on your points.
A good rule, especially in longer documents like reports or proposals, is to include a section—called Summary, Conclusion, or something similar—that clearly restates your main points. For shorter documents, like a letter, you might include a final short wrap-up statement that restates your case.
Note: This summary at the end of your document should be in addition to the conclusion you write early in the document.
Just by keeping these points in mind as you review what you’ve written, you’ll create clearer, more persuasive documents—and get the results you want.