10 NEW rules for business writing
10 new rules for business writing with IMPACT!
This article is about business writing, for anyone writing business communication for print or digital distribution. It’s NOT about commercial/marketing copywriting.
Business writing is becoming less formal. Informal emails have largely replaced formal business letters. But in other business communication it’s not always easy to get the right language and tone of voice.
Help is here! Follow the business writing rules below to write texts that impress.
Rule #1: Be authentic
Nothing impresses like authenticity. Today, people seek – and require – authenticity and honesty. So keep it real. The more your text sounds as if written by an honest human being, the more it will impress and affect readers.
- Write what you believe and believe what you write.
- State things as they are, truthfully. When the truth hurts, find and focus on the positives but be as transparent as you can be.
- Know your audience and think about the impact your text will have on them. It’s easier to be authentic and honest if you write with your readers in mind.
Being true to who you are – as an individual or as a brand – has more impact than conforming to rules. If you’re a jeans-and-sneakers-in-the-boardroom type of person (or organization), go ahead and use exclamation marks in your reports. If you’re more sharp-suits-and-impeccable-grooming, maybe not.
Rule #2: Write informally
Use simple words and sentence structures. Use the active voice more than the passive voice. Address readers directly and use “I”, “we” and “you”, as appropriate.
Today, it’s completely acceptable to write business communication informally. It makes your texts more engaging and easier to understand. Informal language in a business context can actually be more authoritative, because the information stands out clearly rather than being masked by formal, unclear language.
Rule #3: Say simply what you mean
Aim to write texts that are accurate, complete, informative and well structured. The most important thing is to get your message across clearly, simply and honestly.
- Use simple words and sentence structures and short paragraphs, but don’t oversimplify or sacrifice content.
- Your readers aren’t mind-readers. State the facts precisely and explain them: don’t rely on suggestion and innuendo.
- Edit carefully to eliminate spelling and grammar mistakes. See: Common English mistakes.
Using “simple” words doesn’t mean you have to use a limited vocabulary or avoid long or difficult words. Take the time to find the words that express your ideas precisely. One
longer word that says exactly what you mean unambiguous word is more informative than several shorter ones.
Rule #4: Use jargon and slang sparingly
Avoid using corporate jargon, acronyms and abbreviations except those you are certain everyone in your target audience will understand. Complex terminology impresses nobody and may make you (or your organization) sound authoritarian or pompous. It may alienate readers by fostering a distinction between those who understand the jargon and those who don’t.
For the same reason, it’s best to avoid colloquialisms and slang in business writing, except for common terms and expressions that are easily understood.
Rule #5: Start sentences with And or But
The old rule you learned in school about not starting a sentence with “And” or “But” (or However or Also or Or or Because…) was always nonsense. This sentence form has been used in English since the 9th century. The rule against it comes from 17th century scholars who tried to impose Latin grammar rules on English.
If starting with And, But, etc. helps you write short and simple sentences, do it. Just don’t overdo it (or it gets repetitive).
Rule #6: Write paragraphs of just 1 sentence
You may have learned that a paragraph should consist of at least 3 sentences.
More nonsense. Paragraphs of just 1 sentence have always been acceptable, whether in creative, informal or business writing. Even more so at a time when the rules of writing for the web are spilling over into print. If it helps you add impact, do it.
(Using digits instead of numbers isn’t a rule, it’s a personal choice. See: It’s a digital world: use digits for numbers.)
Rule #7: Use contractions
Many people avoid using contractions (it’s, don’t, won’t, etc.) in formal business writing in the belief that they are only acceptable in informal writing.
Not so. Even under the most formal circumstances, people use contractions while speaking, and there’s no reason not to write them. These verb forms are part of the language and are learned in the first year of learning English, whether you’re a baby learning your mother tongue or an adult non-native speaker. If using contractions helps keep your tone of voice natural and direct, do it.
Rule #8: End a sentence with a preposition
Prepositions are words such as to, by, for, with, on, in, about, or at, which connect a noun, verb, or adjective to a noun or pronoun. Typically, but not always, they’re used before the noun or pronoun in a sentence or clause.
The common belief that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition stems once again from misguided old scholars. You CAN write “We finally received the delivery we were waiting for.”, not “…the delivery for which we were waiting.”
But of course you might want to change that to “We received the awaited delivery.”, or “The goods arrived.”
Rule #9: Split infinitives
You may have also learned that you shouldn’t place words between “to” and a verb, as in “To boldly go…” or “Expect sales to more than double”. That’s another old rule you can ignore. Avoiding split infinitives may make for awkward sentences or even change the meaning.
Rule #10: Say what you feel
Surprise, surprise, people have emotions even when at work and doing business. Pride in a job well done, frustration or anger when things don’t go well. People’s feelings can promote or hinder good business collaboration.
Acknowledging and expressing emotion in business communication ties back to rule # 1: Be authentic and rule #3: Say simply what you mean. That doesn’t mean that it’s OK to rant or rave about something in a business report, but it’s OK to express feelings if they are pertinent to the information.
See also: Writing tips: 5 steps for writing any non-fiction text