What is Business Writing? [A Simple Definition]
Business writing is such an interesting application of writing. It’s very pragmatic.
Improving your business writing can propel both careers and businesses. It’s the channel that transmits nearly all business work and insight and interaction.
It flows up, down, laterally, internally, and externally to customers. It’s the foundation of business.
Definition Of Business Writing
Business writing is a type of writing that seeks to elicit a business response. It's a purposeful piece of writing that provides relevant information to help a reader know something or do something. It must be substantive, clear, correct, and easy to scan.
Business Writing Should be Purposeful
There are two primary questions to ask every time we begin a business document (or email):
- Who is my reader? We have to understand our reader to match the information they need.
- What do I want my reader to know or do?
If we can't answer either of these questions, stop. There is no purpose to what you are about to write, so it's not business writing.
If you are looking for more quick tips, you may enjoy our complete list of the best business writing tips and tricks.
Substance Must be Both Accurate and Relevant
The most important element in business writing is the information it conveys.
If there are content gaps, incorrect information, irrelevant information or the same information is repeated in different spins, the document will fail. Always. Even if the words and grammar are beautiful and correct, the document will fail.
At its core, business writing is about information exchange, so this information is the essence of business writing. The information must be complete, relevant to the reader, and accurate.
In business writing, "Write to Express, Not to Impress."
The goal is to transmit information to a reader, so business writing requires clear language to help a reader understand information easily. Writing clearly is one of the harder aspects of business writing. One of my favorite quotes about writing is by Blaise Pascal:
"I apologize for the length of this letter. I did not have time to make it shorter."
It's easy to write long, rambling sentence. Concise, clear writing requires skill.
Concision can be challenging because it's a skill not emphasized in college. In academic writing, assignments often require a certain length. We have to fill ten pages, and we're instructed to develop our writing and expand the concept. We earn good grades partially through the length and impressive language. Puffed up language is rewarded.
No one in business wants a longer document. In business writing, the required skills are the ability to extract what is significant, synthesize, and write clearly.
Our schools and colleges are correct to teach and emphasize expository writing. No one can become a good business writer without first being taught how to develop a thoughtful, well organized essay. We can't extract or synthesize until we understand how to write cohesively and develop a concept. Business writing sits on top of academic writing.
I've taught both academic writing at a university and business writing to thousands of clients. Good business writing is harder to write than good academic writing.
Grammar and Sentence Structure Must be Correct
Good grammar shows both attention to detail and skill.
These traits are highly valued in business. A grammar error is unprofessional. Good grammar is the convention language uses to help us communicate in a common language. It does matter.
Business writing, like all language, evolves. Grammar and style evolve, also. Interestingly, all but one style guide now state that emoticons, used judiciously, are acceptable in business writing. All style guides now recommend one space after a period or other full stop in a sentence, instead of two. These changing standards are why business writers need to continually hone writing skills to stay current with conventions by reading articles about business writing or taking a business writing course.
Business readers are busy and cannot read everything. To help with this information overload, business documents must be easy to absorb. This means:
- No long paragraphs.
- Use lots of white space
- Indent sub-information to indicate hierarchy
- Use numbered or bulleted lists
- Headings above document sections are a natural antidote for information overload
- Judicious use of bold or color can highlight key points
The difference between business writing and other types of writing is similar to Mark Twain's insight about word choice: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”
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.