10 NEW rules of business writing

Rules of business writing. Write as you would speak

Forget the old rules of formal business writing. They're history.

The rules of business writing are changing.

It should go without saying that your business writing should be correct: it should contain no mistakes and use correct spelling, punctuation and basic grammar. Beyond that…

It’s time to debunk most of the old rules of business writing. The ones you thought were right but that never really were. The ones that are outdated. The ones that style guides and websites continue to repeat without question.

So here they are: the 10 rules of business writing that will help you write business communication that’s both engaging and authoritative. These rules are valid for most forms of business writing, not just emails.

Spoiler alert! Largely, it comes down to this: write as you would speak during a meeting. Just with better grammar and more clarity!

Rule 1 - Write [more] informally

  • Don’t put on airs or try to sound smart. Instead, write the way you would speak during a meeting: read your text aloud to check that it has a natural rhythm and flow.
  • 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.

See also: Tone of voice in business writing: don’t be too formal

Rule 2 - Say simply what you mean

Effective business communication is simple and informative. You want to get your key messages across clearly, simply and directly.

  • Use simple language and sentence structures, and short paragraphs, but don’t oversimplify or sacrifice content.
  • Take the time to find the words that express your ideas precisely. One longer word that says exactly what you mean unambiguous word can be more informative than several shorter ones.
  • Your readers aren’t mind-readers. State the facts precisely and explain them: don’t rely on suggestion and innuendo.
  • Edit and structure your text carefully to make sure that the key information stands out clearly. Your text should be accurate and concise, free of fluff, irrelevant information and diversions. See: Writing tips: 5 steps for writing any non-fiction text.
  • Proofread carefully to eliminate spelling and grammar mistakes. See: Common English mistakes.

Rule 3 - Be authentic

Keep it real. People look for and connect with authenticity and honesty. The more your text sounds as if written by an honest human being, the more impact it will have on your readers. They’ll think about it more and even remember it better.

  • Write from the heart; yes, even when writing about business. Say what you believe and believe what you say.
  • State things as they are, truthfully. When the truth isn’t easy, find and focus on the positives. Be as transparent as you can be.
  • Know your audience and imagine the effect your text will have on them. It’s often easier to be authentic and honest if you write with your readers in mind.
  • Be true to who you are – as an individual or as a brand. If you’re a jeans-and-sneakers-in-the-boardroom type of person (or organisation), go ahead and use exclamation marks in your reports. If you’re more sharp-suits-and-impeccable-grooming, maybe not.

Rule 4 - Use jargon and slang sparingly

Jargon is an evil beast. Yes, it’s useful shorthand and can save time. But using jargon creates an ‘us and them’. Insiders and outsiders. The ‘in’ crowd versus those on the sidelines. Jargon and complex terminology may alienate some readers by making them feel confused or excluded if they don’t understand it.

Business communication should be about bridging gaps, not creating them. So avoid using corporate jargon, acronyms and abbreviations except those you’re certain that everyone in your target audience will understand. 

Moreover, jargon can make you (or your organisation) sound pompous rather than authoritative. 

Similarly, avoid colloquialisms and slang, except for common terms and expressions. While they may make your business writing sound more informal, not everyone will understand what you’re trying to say. Especially if they are not all mother-tongue English speakers.

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 becomes 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.

(Yes, I wrote ‘1’ and ‘3’ instead of ‘one’ and ‘three’. Many people think that using digits instead of numbers is wrong. It’s not: it’s a personal choice. I think that the convention of spelling out some numbers but not others is silly and obsolete. Why? 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, byforwithoninabout, 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 safely 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 #2: Say simply what you mean and rule # 3: Be authentic. 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.

Bonus rule - Use formatting to get your message across

Formatting is as important to writing as voice is to speaking. It’s your ally to enhance the clarity and appeal of your text.

If your business text will be submitted to a graphic designer for layout, you may think that they will take care of all the formatting. But that’s a risky approach if they highlight the wrong messages or make your text unreadable. Learn about effective formatting and apply it from the start, even if a designer will later do it much better than you can.

I have a new article on this in the pipeline…

Meanwhile, see also: Writing tips: 5 steps for writing any non-fiction text

And that’s how you make your business writing impactful and effective!

BelEdit Consulting offers web writing, editing and related training services. More…

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