How to Bring Clarity to Business Writing
Clarity in business writing allows your ideas to be easily understood, free of add-on words that make a sentence murky and convoluted.
There are several rhetorical strategies to achieve clarity, but here are three techniques that best sweep away the bloat to let your ideas shine.
Business Writing Clarity Strategy #1: Unsmother Your Verbs
Focus on verbs. They are the action of a sentence, and the best opportunity to enhance clarity.
Imagine watching a Bruce Willis movie that shows Bruce napping or knitting or whittling on a park bench for 90 minutes... Bored yet? So too are readers if your writing has little action or wimpy verbs.
Unsmother your verbs. Smothered verbs are so common in business writing that they feel correct when you use them. However, a smothered verb adds nothing but bloat and the tone feels both timid and boring to a reader. This article will explain smothered verbs in detail.
You will cut at least 25% of unnecessary words by simply unsmothering verbs. Let the verb do its job in a sentence without smothering add-on words. The impact on business writing clarity is amazing.
Business Writing Clarity Strategy #2: Avoid Adverbs
Choose powerful verbs that connote meaning, which don't need a second modifying word to do their job! For instance:
- "The attendant shouted loudly."
- "The attendant shouted," is a perfect sentence. "Loudly" is inferred and extraneous.
- "The executive ran quickly into the boardroom."
- "Ran quickly" is wasteful. Pick a better verb. "The executive sprinted into the boardroom" is concise, visual, and lively.
Business Writing Clarity Strategy #3: Recognize the Power of Short Words.
Years back, some business writers felt they conveyed their intelligence more by dropping long words, when short words actually worked better. Rhetorically, this has never been good writing.
Long words don’t make you sound intelligent unless used very skillfully and judiciously. In the wrong situation they’ll have the opposite effect, making you sound pretentious and arrogant. They’re also less likely to be understood and more awkward to read.
I've always loved Hemingway's response when Faulkner criticized him for his limited word choice:
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
Fine, but can be improved:
It has never been a good writing practice to use big words indiscriminately.
It has never been a good writing practice to use big words needlessly. ("Needlessly" is shorter and simpler than "indiscriminately.")
It has never been a good writing practice to bloat with big words. (More powerful verb "bloat" instead of vague verb "use" eliminates the need for modifying adverb "needlessly.")
Remember this maxim: Write to express, not to impress. Good business writers use short words well.
Richard Lederer sings the praises of the short word to enhance clarity in his book, The Miracle of Language:
Here is a sound rule: Use small, old words where you can. If a long word says just what you want to say, do not fear to use it. But know that our tongue is rich in crisp, brisk, swift, short words. Make them the spine and the heart of what you speak and write. Short words are like fast friends. They will not let you down.
Read more about the power of short words.
A clear business report allows an executive to easily understand a recommendation. A clear business email allows all the readers to quickly understand. A proposal that clearly expresses your value wins the sale.
Apply these clarity principles, and we're all able to understand each other better.
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About the author
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.