A person in business attire writing on several pieces of paper with a ballpoint pen.

A Primer on Business Writing

There was no business writing curriculum in either my undergrad program or my MBA program, and it really showed in the final assignments that were produced. How do I know that? Because in work groups, I was often (almost always) called in to edit the deliverables.

People don’t often give writing for business a lot of thought. As long as it’s written down and understandable, it should be okay, right?

It might be okay, but there are a lot of techniques and strategies that can take your business writing from okay to great. These strategies are another reason that you should hire a writer to write copy.

Why Does Business Writing Matter?

Almost all of the writing you do while working in business is going to be persuasive writing of some kind. Even your resume and cover letters when you’re looking for a job. Even reports, and especially presentations. 

Being a good business writer makes your persuasive writing more compelling. Maybe you’re writing an executive summary that you don’t expect to change minds, but to inform. Good persuasive writing helps convince your audience that you know what you’re talking about.

So if you want what you present to be received as authoritative, you should learn good business writing. Writing well is an excellent way to impress people, to be viewed as professional, and to make friends and allies in the workplace.

Another reason business writing is important is that people don’t like to read. I mean, a lot of us like to read for pleasure, but at work, we’re all busy. We don’t want to sacrifice our precious time  reading an entire page of writing when a few sentences will do. So making the few sentences you have hold someone’s attention is important.

So let’s check out some tips on upping your writing game.

Orwell’s Rules

Orwell’s rules for writing appeared in “Politics and the English Language,” an essay published by George Orwell in 1946, and they are still vital for any writer in any discipline. In fact, Duke University presents them as a resource for scientific writing.

So here are the rules. There’s 6 of them, and they’re deceptively simple.

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long one where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules before saying anything outright barbarous.

These rules are useful to every writer. They may not apply to every situation, or be 100% applicable across the board (see rule #6), but adopting them can make your writing more powerful and more convincing.

Common Metaphors and Similes

Metaphors are powerful tools for conveying ideas. They can present a new concept to someone within a context that the reader understands.

The danger lies in using metaphors that are common to the point of being stale.These are comparisons that are so common in English that they’ve basically become a verbal shorthand. 

When we encounter these kinds of metaphors, we kind of tune them out. When you’re writing for business, every word and sentence matters. Instead of using a common metaphor, come up with something more unique, or in a lot of cases, just omit the metaphor entirely unless it’s needed.

This will help you avoid using more words than you need, and it will help keep your writing strong and punchy.

Long Words Versus Short Words

This rule is about the length of your writing, but it’s also about the power of your writing. 

Multisyllabic words are unavoidable, but unnecessarily long words weaken your writing (in a business context). Long words do not make you look smart. Long words give the reader’s mind more to chew on, and they often feel boring. They don’t capture the imagination in the way that short, powerful words do.

Thinking about it in marketing copy brings this very simple example to mind:

“Buy Now!” versus “You must purchase this immediately!”

Which of those feels more powerful? They both contain words that indicate urgency, but one is definitely more powerful than the other, and it’s because it uses strong language. Part of strong language is short words.

There’s another facet to choosing short words. You want the writing that you produce to be understandable to as many people in the audience as possible. This means you want to write to the average reading level in the audience. For the general public, the average reading level is around 7th – 8th grade, according to the Literacy Project.

That average may be higher in a business setting, but it’s still likely to be around the 9th grade level. People are not persuaded by words they don’t understand.

Here are some examples:

  • Instead of “utilize,” choose “use.”
  • Instead of “increase,” choose “rise” where appropriate.
  • Instead of “commence,” choose “start” or “begin.”
  • Instead of “prior to,” choose “before.”

Extra Unnecessary Words

In order to make your writing stronger and more compelling, you need to cut the fat. This is true in persuasive essays, executive summaries, fiction, and dozens of other kinds of writing. Saying more than you need to say dilutes your message, and that’s the last thing you want to do when you’re writing for business.

Here are some types of words to look out for:

Adjectives – yes, these are useful. However, for most writing, about 80% of adjectives can be cut. This amount varies based on the kind of writing; it’ll be lower for artistic writing and higher for things like resumes. 

Adverbs – When in doubt, remove all adverbs. If you’re not sure whether something is an adverb, look for the -ly ending. Remember that other words can moonlight as adverbs, though. Any word that modifies or describes an action is an adverb.

Really or Very – In business writing, these do nothing. They’re wasted space. Your time is better spent giving data.

Here’s a way to cut the fat. Look at a sentence, and delete things that might be waste words. If your sentence still makes sense, you didn’t need those words.

Passive Voice Versus Active Voice

This is a bugaboo for a lot of writers, myself included.

First, what are passive and active voice? Passive voice is a sentence in which the subject of the sentence is acted upon. Active voice is when the subject of the sentence is acting. Here’s an example:

Active voice: “Ricky threw the ball.”

Passive voice: “The ball was thrown by Ricky.”

See how the subject (Ricky) and the object (the ball) have traded places?

There are a few reasons why you want to avoid passive voice.

The first is that it almost always results in a longer, more complicated, and more awkward sentence. In business, this makes your writing weaker.

The second is that you surrender power by using the passive voice.

The passive voice is used by writers to convey a sense of helplessness and inevitability. Consider this example:

“The ship was tossed on the stormy sea.”

See how this communicates how powerless and desperate the ship is in the grip of a storm?

I don’t think I’ve written a single sentence in business in which I wanted to communicate that something is powerless or weak or inevitable.

The same scene written in active voice: “The ship tossed on the stormy sea,” puts the reader in the action. The outcome no longer seems inevitable; the ship has agency. They might still pull this off before being dashed on the rocks.

Where does this fit in within a business context?

“Earnings were increased by…” versus “Earnings increased by…” or better yet, “We increased earnings by…”

“Pageviews were increased by 100% after the site redesign,” becomes “The site redesign increased pageviews by 100%,” or even better: “The site redesign doubled pageviews.”

Eliminating Jargon

This is a tough one, right? As business professionals we are both purveyors and connoisseurs of jargon. We think in jargon.

Sometimes this is appropriate. For example, if I’m writing something for other digital marketing professionals, using the acronym “SERP” instead of “search engine results page” is not just okay, it’s desirable. SERP is punchier, shorter, and an audience of digital marketers will understand it immediately.

However, if I’m writing a report to be delivered to management outside of the agency or marketing department, they might not (in fact, they probably won’t) understand what SERP is unless you tell them. So in this case, using “search engine results page” is better. Even better is the plain language alternative: “search results.”

So this is a matter of considering your audience. If you’re writing to someone within your specialty, certain jargon words will be useful and even necessary. If you’re writing for someone outside of your specialties (especially management and customers), skip the industry specific jargon and make your writing as clear as possible. You want them to understand your writing. When people understand what you’re saying, they find you more trustworthy. Trust matters in business.

The Rules Don’t Always Apply

Orwell notes in Rule 6 that these rules, like most rules, don’t apply 100% of the time. Consider that the reason they are rules is because they do apply most of the time, though.

If you’re considering breaking one of these rules, make sure you evaluate it thoroughly.

Consider whether your audience will easily understand your writing.

Read the edited sentence.

Speak the sentence out loud.

If your rule-breaking text passes all of those tests, consider what purpose that rule break serves. Does it:

  • Make your writing stronger or clearer?
  • Make a concept easier to understand?
  • Generate trust and authority for the source?

If not, it’s probably not necessary to break the rule, and you should avoid it.

Orwell’s rules are indispensable for any writer, including someone who writes for business. That includes emails with coworkers, clients, suppliers, and so on. Are they the be-all-end-all of business writing? No, absolutely not. They’re a fantastic place to start tuning up your business writing, though. Go ahead, give them a try.

While you’re at it, try to find all the places I broke the rules in this article. It’ll be great practice for checking over your own writing!


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