87 Advanced Business Writing Tips [That Actually Work]
I'm excited to share these top 87 business writing tips with you.
They were honed while I studied English Literature and Rhetoric, taught writing at the university level, and worked with thousands of individuals and hundreds of companies to help people write better at work. Many of these tips come directly from our award winning online business writing courses.
My hope is these tips help you enjoy writing, better communicate at work, get ahead in your career, and grow your business!
1. Know Your Audience
Business writing is all about your reader. Your reader is your focus point, not what you know.
2. Prime Questions
Before you write anything, ask yourself these two questions:
1. Who is my reader?
2. What do I want this reader to know or do?
If you can’t answer these two questions, stop. Don’t write the document because it has no purpose.
Planning & Process Tips
3. Think First
Business writing is just as much about thinking as it is about writing.
4. Most Time is Planning
You should spend approximately 50% of your time planning a business document or email.
5. Drafting is Easy
Drafting a document is the easiest part and should require approximately 20% of your time.
6. Editing Time
Allocate 30% of your time to editing.
7. Plan First, Then Draft
Accept that you want to draft more than you want to plan a document or email. Everyone does. Drafting gives us a (sometimes false) sense of accomplishment. And, drafting is easier than planning.
8. Woody Allen is Right about Writing
Woody Allen calls the planning portion of writing the “pace the floor” part. If you are an analytical thinker, which many business writers are, this is natural for you, but accept that sometimes it makes your brain hurt as your mind has to figure out all the interconnections.
9. Concept Maps are Essential for Business Writers
Mapping the structure of a complex document will make both planning and drafting much easier.
10. Develop Headings
When you plan your documents, write a heading for each main section of your document. Don’t worry about the wording of the heading as you are planning to document, but verify that you can encapsulate the content of that section into a heading. If you can’t, your content is murky so fix it now before you waste time trying to edit the language when the real problem is disorganization.
11. Start Where It's Easiest
You don’t have to begin writing a document or email at the first sentence. The first sentence is often the hardest sentence to write. Instead, look at your document headings and write the section that is easiest or most interesting for you. Once you begin writing, the interconnectivity of thoughts will ignite, and the rest of the document will be easier to write.
12. How to Jump in and Out
In real life, business writers don’t have the luxury of a half-day of uninterrupted writing time. To maximize your efficiency, refer to the map or outline you created, decide which section you can tackle in the time you have and start drafting. Having a map and headings will prevent you from having to re-engage your thinking all over again each time you exit and enter the document.
13. Back Up When You Get Stuck
The best recommendation given to me during my years of rhetorical studies was: “The secret of writing is knowing when to back up. Don’t try to edit and polish before something is fully drafted. Don’t try to draft before your thoughts are clear. When you get stuck, back up!” As a business writer, this has saved me lots of frustration.
14. Hire a Coach
Hire a business writing coach and receive personalized feedback. One-on-one sessions will help you gain confidence in your writing.
15. Paragraphs Seven Lines or Less Online
In email or other documents that will be read online, be certain your paragraphs aren’t longer than seven lines. (Lines, not sentences.) Any longer than that and readability studies show that your readers just see a big block of text and jump over it.
16. Dangling Expressions are Funny but Avoid Them
Dangling expressions commonly creep in documents in bullets and when copying and pasting.
David Corcoran wrote the project plan while traveling to Atlanta on the back of an envelope.
(Who knew one could travel on an envelope?)
18. Headings Will Allow Your Readers to Scan Easily
Using headings in email to highlight the organization will allow readers to scan the email more efficiently.
19. Make it Easy for Your Reader to Scan
Add white space to your documents by using numbered and bulleted lists.
20. Use Format to Indicate Hierarchy
Indent paragraphs to visually indicate it is a subset of the information above.
Language Best Practices
21. Write to Express, Not to Impress
In business writing, your goal is to easily transmit ideas and information, not to flaunt a big vocabulary.
22. Concise Writing is Skilled Writing
Concise writing is harder to craft than writing that has no length limit. Blaise Pasqual stated, "I apologize for the length of my letter. I did not have time to make it shorter."
23. Use Short Words
I’ve long admired Richard Lederer’s writing on language. In his 1991 book, The Miracle of Language, Lederer sings the praises of the short word:
When you speak and write, there is no law that says you have to use big words. Short words are as good as long ones, and short, old words— like sun and grass and home—are best of all. A lot of small words, more than you might think, can meet your needs with a strength, grace, and charm that large words do not have.
Two tips on clarity I always highlight in our business writing courses:
- Never use a big word when a small word will do.
- Any time a word is not truly needed, cut it.
24. Use Staccato Short Words to Grab Attention
To grab your reader’s attention at pivotal moments in a document, such as the recommendation or conclusion, deliberately shift one or two sentences to all single-syllable words. A break in varied syllable length has the same effect on reading a document that staccato notes have when listening to music. The short, staccato words subconsciously alert your reader that something has shifted, causing them to pay more attention.
25. Winston Churchill Wisdom
Winston Churchill wisely stated, “Big men use little words, and little men use big words.”
26. Verbs = Energy
Verbs are the pivot point of a sentence. Strong verbs have real punch. Compare:
The famous strong verb example by Julius Caesar: “Veni, vidi, vici.” I came, I saw, I conquered.
Business-speak: I was in attendance, and I conducted a review of the situation and culture, and I made recommendations for acquisition.
27. Use Precise Verbs
To bring clarity to your writing, use precise and evocative verbs. Business writers tend to muddle verbs because imprecise verb use is so common in business writing that it sounds normal to our ears.
28. Don't Smother Verbs
A common clarity problem in business writing is “smothered verbs,” which are verbs that were changed to nouns (called “nominalization”). For example, the verb decide is nominalized into the noun decision. These nominalized verbs require helping words around them that smother their impact, muddle the clarity of a sentence, and increase sentence length.
29. Verbs Used Right Bring Clarity
Enhance clarity by using a specific verb, instead of a smothered nominalized word.
The core verb in this sentence is “decide:"
We need to make a decision about hiring either Kevin or Kira. - smothered verb
We need to decide about hiring either Kevin or Kira. - unsmothered verb
30. How to Cut 20%-25% of Bloat
Cutting smothered verbs reduces document length by 20-25% in most business documents. None of the smothering words have any value. Unsmothering verbs is a very powerful clarity technique.
31. "Take" Near a Verb is Smothered
Watch out for the word take near the verb in a sentence or sentence clause. If take is next to a verb or nominalized verb phrase, it is smothered.
We need to take the data findings into consideration if we expand the product line.We need to consider the data findings if we expand the product line.
32. "Give" Near a Verb is Smothered
Watch out for the word give near the verb in a sentence or sentence clause. If give is next to a verb or nominalized verb phrase, it is smothered.
Let me give consideration to your muddled writing.
Let me consider your muddled writing.
33. "Have" Near a Verb is Smothered
Watch out for the word have near the verb in a sentence or sentence clause. If have is next to a verb or nominalized verb phrase, it is smothered.
I have a suspicion some of your verbs are smothered.
I suspect some of your verbs are smothered.
34. "Make" Near a Verb is Smothered
Watch out for the word make near the verb in a sentence or sentence clause. If make is next to a verb or nominalized verb phrase, it is smothered.
We promise to make an adjustment to your account by tomorrow.
We promise to adjust your account by tomorrow.
35. "Conduct" Near a Verb is Smothered
Watch out for the word conduct near the verb in a sentence or sentence clause. If conduct is next to a verb or nominalized verb phrase, it is smothered.
We’ll need to conduct a review of the data before the decision can be made.
We’ll need to review the data before deciding. (Two smothered verbs corrected)
36. "Come" Near a Verb is Smothered
Watch out for the word come near the verb in a sentence or sentence clause. If come is next to a verb or nominalized verb phrase, it is smothered.
We came to the conclusion that prices had to increase.
We concluded that prices had to increase.
37. "-ion or -ment" Near a Verb is Usually Smothered
Look for words ending in -ion and -ment near the verb in a sentence or sentence clause. If -ion or -ment is next to a verb or nominalized verb phrase, it is likely smothered.
Are we in agreement that clarity matters?
Do we agree that clarity matters?
Extend an invitation to Karen and Sunita.
Invite Karen and Sunita.
38. Avoid Wimpy Verbs
Avoid wimpy verbs that need a helping word to enable the verb to do its job in the sentence.
Dolores walked into the room slowly and quietly with her head averted, hoping no one would notice she was late.
Dolores slinked into the room, hoping no one would notice she was late.
Evan planned and worked on the technical aspect of the project plan.
Evan engineered the project plan.
39. Avoid Redundancy
Avoid redundant verb modifiers.
Damian shouted loudly at Clarrisa after she missed the deadline.
Damian shouted at Clarrisa after she missed the deadline. (Shouting, by definition, is loud, so no modifier is needed.)
40. Don't Start Sentences with "There is" or "There are."
Weak sentences frequently start with “There is” or “There are.” Instead, cut to the chase. Find the real subject and start there.
There was a strong disagreement between the divisions about the reorganization structure.
The two sides strongly disagreed about the reorganization structure.
41. Active Voice is Better than Passive Voice
Active voice is more dynamic and lively than passive voice, typically.
42. Use Reader-Focused Wording
To increase reader engagement, shift appropriately from writer-focused wording to reader-focused writing. Be judicious. An entire document written with reader-focus wording can feel smarmy or too much like a marketing pitch. Used judiciously, it’s very effective.
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43. Avoid Jargon
Jason Fried, the CEO of 37 Signals, stated: “Jargon is insecurity.” I agree.
So often, I hear people within an organization parrot each other with phrases that have been used so much they have become meaningless.
- Lots of moving parts
- Give 110%
- Think outside the box
- Tiger team
- View more jargon examples to avoid
Bonus Tip: You can also use our free Jargon Grader to check your writing for over 700 jargon words and phrases.
44. Be Polite. It Echoes.
Everything we write at work has a larger echo. This echo is both a worry and an opportunity to advance your career. For example, you may have to deny a funding request to present research at a conference, but the larger echo requirement is maintaining the drive to innovate and research at your company. Don't win a battle and lose the war.
45. Own Your Work
Avoid “I think…” or “I suggest…” or “I wonder if we should…”
Instead, confidently write “I recommend...” or omit the “I” lead statement and simply write “Merge the divisions.”
46. Use Standard Grammar, Even When Challenging
Subjects and verbs need to agree in number. In an attempt be non-sexist, some business writers recommend writing, “Each person did their work quietly.”
Each is singular. Their is plural. It’s grammatically incorrect.
47. How to Dodge Awkward His or Her Dilemma
To dodge the awkward his or her dilemma, shift the subject to plural when possible:
A manager is trained to support his or her employees.
Managers are trained to support their employees.
48. The Right Amount of Information Helps the Reader and Writer
A little extra information provided can resolve repeated questions:
As noted on page four of the instruction booklet, photocopying on both sides requires two steps.
49. Equal Respect Matters
Use consistency naming people. Mr. Jones and Arlene Kelly should be referred to consistently as David Jones and Arlene Kelly or as Mr. Jones and Ms. Kelly.
50. Avoid Exclusionary Words
Use neutral job titles that do not imply gender - chairperson, not chairman or chairwoman.
51. Confident Tone Tip
To instill a confident tone to your writing, shorten your sentences and avoid the common overuse of“, and” in sentences. Which statement sounds more confident to you?
Training with us is easy, and you can hand us the job and just walk away. You won't worry about a thing, and you can get back to what you do best. Relax knowing your project is moving seamlessly to completion, and you can simply calculate the savings.
Training with us is easy. Hand us the job and just walk away. You won't worry about a thing. Get back to what you do best. Relax knowing your project is moving seamlessly to completion. Simply calculate the savings.
Do you hear the difference in confident tone? The second statement sounds much less out-of-breath or desperate to please and more confident and competent. It is calmer and assuring.
Business Writing Editing Tips & Tricks
53. An Exclamation Point is Already Superlative
Never use more than one exclamation point at the end of a sentence.
When I studied rhetoric in graduate school, my favorite professor shared this funny statement about using too many exclamation points in general.
“Too many exclamation points make a document feel as if it has been written by an unfocused over-caffeinated cheerleader.”
54. Use Clear Words Rather than Emphasis Punctuation
Exclamation points are often used in business writing to generate enthusiasm when the real problem is imprecise information. More accurate, clear information will generate reader engagement far better than trying to spice a murky document with exclamation points.
55. Editing First Step
The first step in editing is verifying that content matches reader needs - not too much, and not too little.
56. Editing Second Step
The second step in editing is making sure the document is as easy to scan as possible. Add headings, bullet lists, appropriate bold text, and lots of white space.
57. Editing Third Step
The third step in editing is correcting grammar, sentence structure, and eliminating bloat.
58. Break Paragraphs Frequently
Every new thought needs a new paragraph. When in doubt, break the paragraph.
59. Paragraph Length is Varied
A one-sentence paragraph is both correct and emphatic. Don't be afraid to write a one-sentence paragraph.
60. Designate an Editor for Group Documents
When a group writes a document, designate one writer as the final editor to ensure a coherent voice.
61. Planning Eases Editing
If you are spending too much time editing, you probably rushed the planning of your document.
62. Editing Can't Compensate for Poor Planning
Editing should need a dusting, not an editorial massacre.
63. How to Proofread a Colleague's Document
If a colleague asks you to edit their document, you must ask them about both the purpose of the document and about the audience. Without this information, you can only clean grammar.
64. Punctuation Matters
A woman without her man is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Grammar Tips for Business Writing
65. #1 Most Common Business Grammar Error
The most common grammar error we see in client writing during business writing training is fused or run-on sentences.
66. #2 Most Common Business Grammar Error
The second most common grammar error we see in client writing is sentence fragments.
67. #3 Most Common Business Grammar Error
The third most common grammar error we see in client writing is hyphen errors.
68. #4 Most Common Business Grammar Error
The fourth most common grammar error we see in client writing is me, myself, and I errors.
69. #5 Most Common Business Grammar Error
The fifth most common grammar error we see in client writing is introductory clause comma errors.
70. Grammar Errors are Individual
Everyone makes different grammar errors. Therefore, to improve grammar, the first step has to be an accurate diagnosis of an individual’s entrenched grammar errors.
71. Wide-Ranging Grammar Training Won't Help
A review of many grammar rules is ineffective in actually improving business writing sentence structure. More effective is focusing on what is incorrect.
72. Best Grammar Resource
By far, the best grammar resource on the Internet is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. It includes explanation and exercises.
73. Best Grammar Analysis
Grammar Girl is an excellent resource for current grammar use and rationale.
74. Best Business Grammar Resource
Instructional Solutions’ Business Grammar category in their Business Writing Info blog is an excellent resource for business-specific grammar use.
75. Oxford Comma Yes or No
Grammarians will never agree about whether or not to use the Oxford Comma (also called a Serial Comma.) I recommend that business writers use it because of consistency and clarification advantages.
76. Grammar Rules are Inflexible
Grammarians who believe a grammar rule should never be broken are called prescriptivists.
77. Grammar Rules are Flexible
Grammarians who believe language is more flexible, and grammar rules may be broken, are called descriptivists.
78. My Recommendation on the Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist Divide
In business writing, it’s best to stick with established grammar rules because a client or potential customer could see what they perceive as an error and believe your work is simply sloppy.
Business Writing Tools
79. Best Grammar and Editing Tool
Grammarly is our top business writing tool recommendation. Use it as the last check before you send anything. It will also detect plagiarism. Don't forget plagiarism applies to text as well as images.
80. Cut the Bloat Tool
Hemingway is a free app that detects bloat in your writing.
82. Tone Analyzer
Tone Analyzer assesses the tone of your business writing.
83. Jargon Detector
Unsuck It is a rude, but useful, tool that assesses business writing jargon.
84. Free Concept Mapping Tool
Freemind is free mind mapping software that is very easy to use.
85. How to Easily Learn Concept Mapping
This tutorial will teach you to use Freemind in ten minutes.
86. Hire the Better Writer
In his insightful book, Rework, Jason Fried stated:
All things being equal, hire the better writer. Good writers know what to include and what to omit. They understand people and motivation. They can express complex information in a way it can be shared. Whether the position is sales, engineering, software development, or HR, always hire the better writer.
I agree with Jason Fried. However, business writing is a skill that can be honed. Since 1998, my company, Instructional Solutions, and I have helped thousands of individuals and hundreds of companies write better at work.
87. Subscribe to Our Blog
We wanted to add one last tip! If you liked this article you can subscribe to our blog here. We often write articles focused on helping you become a better professional writer.
That's the list! If you have a tip that I missed please comment below. I would love to hear what tips you have.
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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.