How to Improve Business Writing Skills

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published December 15, 2015, updated August 2, 2023

This post will detail how to improve your business writing skills. Syntax (language) and substance (content) are the two required elements that distinguish strong business writing skills from weak. Although some business writing training treats substance and syntax as the same thing, they are actually two distinct skills of business writing. 

Effective business writing begins with a keen analysis of the audience. The information in all documents and email needs to be customized to meet the needs of the reader. Audience needs drive the right content.

For example, a sales letter written to customers needs to be easy to comprehend and reflect information that is relevant and helpful to the customer. A strategic report written for a senior manager should be accurate, concise, and relevant, and also include content relevant to that manager. An operational report or IT-related document can be highly technical, as experts in the field will read it and those experts would understand, need, and expect highly technical information.

Your audience will always dictate the substance (the content) of your business documents. Correct sentence structure and even clear language will never offset content gaps. If your readers don't get the right information, the document will fail, no matter how perfectly the sentences are constructed.

How to improve business writing skills? Remember this: Substance is more important than syntax. The former always precedes the latter.

An impressive vocabulary will not save you from trouble if you’re unaware of your target audience or are unable to reword information to match your reader’s level of understanding. Similarly, a business report that is grammatically correct might not convey the right information if it is not planned and written properly.

When training to improve business writing, writing experts and trainers often focus too much on syntax (the word choice and grammar and sentence structures) and neglect improving the substance (the content and information) of business writing. This is a mistake. 

Here is a brief look into substance, its importance, and how can you improve it.

How to Improve Business Writing Skills: Start with Substance

Remember your Grade 7 English classes where you had to read through a comprehension passage and briefly summarize it within 100 words? Substance in business writing works similarly. What information most matters to the reader to help them know or do what you want?

Improving the substance in business writing is all about:

  1. Analyzing audience to determine what information a reader needs.
  2. Extracting relevant and significant information from complex ideas.

In other words, it means having the ability to summarize large chunks of data or facts into information that is meaningful for the reader.

Before you consider investing in workshops and seminars to improve business writing skills, you need to perform a simple test. Give your employees heaps of information and ask them to extract the most relevant information from it and summarize it in a short statement. If the employees or team members cannot do this easily and well, it's a sure diagnosis that you need to focus on improving the substance element of your employees' business writing.

Practice Improving Business Writing Skills

Substance in business writing can be improved through continual on-the-job training. You can either lead a few exercises on your own or call in professional help.

If you want to do it on your own, here are a few activities you can conduct to judge and analyze the substance of your employees' business writing:

  • Ask your employees why a project should it be funded. If the response is a ten-page disorganized report, then you need business writing training that focuses on organization, extraction of key information and appropriate substance. 
  • Ask your employees for solutions to any problem at work. Practical and well-summarized solutions indicate your employees’ strong analytical and writing skills. 

  • A potential employee’s response to, “Why should we hire you?” during an interview offers a clear insight about his or her writing and communication skills. If he or she cannot verbally extract the key information points verbally, he or she won't do it well in writing either.  
  • Watch how individual employees summarize the minutes of meetings, summarize analysis reports, or verbally summarize relevant insights discussed at meetings. All of these writing tasks require mastery of good substance/content in business writing. If you see any murky summaries, that is your clear diagnosis that you need to focus on improving the content and substance of your employees business writing. Don't start with syntax. Focus on substance and content in this situation. 

Fine Tune Your Employees' Business Writing Skills

When deciding on whether employees need to improve their business writing, analyze the substance of all employee documents. A well written business document or email or report contains four essential elements:

  1. Audience awareness
  2. Content that is relevant to that specific audience
  3. Logically categorized content
  4. Properly sequenced information

When you encounter a document that does not present information clearly, figure out if the issue is a problem with audience awareness, or irrelevant content, or disorganization, or poor sequencing. This will help you fine tune both the corrections and training plan.

Tip: To underscore that writing matters in your organization, evaluate employee business writing skills, including improvement efforts, in all employee performance appraisals. What counts is what's counted. If you tell your employees that "strong business writing skills" are a requirement of a position, measure those skills.

To learn more on how to improve the substance of all business documents and how to integrate business writing skills in employee appraisals, download my book “Four steps to improve your Team’s Business Writing Skills” today!

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published December 15, 2015, updated August 2, 2023
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.