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23-part checklist for better business writing

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If you’re new to business writing, it can be intimidating to be expected to suddenly send out communications without showing up your lack of experience.

For example, say you’ve moved into a management position, and are now expected to write reports, analysis, and status updates. You feel your writing could be better but are not sure exactly what needs to be ‘fixed.’

This checklist should help you zero in on the typical writing mistakes that trip up novice writers.

Published in: Business, Education
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23-part checklist for better business writing

  1. 1. Business Writing 23-Part Checklist
  2. 2. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 2 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing Disclaimers The information contained in this document is the proprietary and exclusive property of Klariti except as otherwise indicated. No part of this document, in whole or in part, may be reproduced, stored, transmitted, or used for design purposes without the prior written permission of Klariti. The information contained in this document is subject to change without notice. The information in this document is provided for informational purposes only. Klariti specifically disclaims all warranties, express or limited, including, but not limited, to the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, except as provided for in a separate software license agreement.
  3. 3. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 3 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing Table of Contents 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing ...................5 Business v Academic Writing .......................................................................................5 #1 Empathize with your Reader....................................................................................6 #2 Identify your audience .............................................................................................6 #3 Address Pain Points ................................................................................................7 #4 Use Question-and-Answer Formats ........................................................................7 #5 Use 'you to speak to readers ...................................................................................7 #6 Use the active voice ................................................................................................7 #7 Use the appropriate tone .........................................................................................8 #8 Use short sentences................................................................................................8 #9 Write to one person, not a group .............................................................................8 #10 Use the simplest tense you can.............................................................................9 #11 Use must to convey requirements .........................................................................9 #12 Avoid Ambiguity.....................................................................................................9 #13 Use 'if-then' tables .................................................................................................9 #14 Avoid Weasel' Words...........................................................................................10 #15 Use Contractions When Appropriate ...................................................................10 #16 White Space Matters ...........................................................................................10 #17 Use Meaningful Headings....................................................................................10 #18 Write Short Sections............................................................................................11 #19 One Idea Per Paragraph......................................................................................11 #20 Use Vertical Lists.................................................................................................11
  4. 4. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 4 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing #21 Highlight levels of importance..............................................................................11 #22 Use emphasis to highlight important points .........................................................11 #23 Ask: How can I write more clearly?......................................................................12 Summary ....................................................................................................................12
  5. 5. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 5 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing If you’re new to business writing, it can be intimidating to be expected to suddenly send out communications without showing up your lack of experience. For example, say you’ve moved into a management position, and are now expected to write reports, analysis, and status updates. You feel your writing could be better but are not sure exactly what needs to be ‘fixed.’ This checklist should help you zero in on the typical writing mistakes that trip up novice writers. Business v Academic Writing When you were in high school, you were taught - or developed specific writing habits that pleased your teachers - to write in a way that was accepted and encouraged. Long sentences, lots of sub-clauses, rolling paragraphs, and usually long words, when a short one would have worked. That was fine then, but in the business world, you need to adjust your writing style. For example, we have frequently seen Government documents—complicated, dense, lots of jargons—that created frustration, misunderstanding, and distrust between citizens and government agencies. In order to address this issue, we've created this checklist for better business writing. Research shows that clearly written regulations improve compliance and decrease litigation. Clear writing that considers the readers' needs and draws them into the regulatory process improves the relationship between the government and the public. Well-written correspondence reduces the burden on the public, and reduces the burden on the respective agency—as they don't have to deal with the consequences of poor communication. How can we improve our communications? The most critical goals in communicating are to: • Engage the reader • Write clearly
  6. 6. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 6 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing • Make it attractive The next section summarizes some of the best techniques to achieve these goals. #1 Empathize with your Reader Not sympathize, empathize. By empathizing with your readers, and engaging with them, you can demonstrate to them that you have considered their concerns and understand what they need to know. When you address your readers' specific needs, they are more likely to be receptive to your message. When your document is well written, your readers are more likely to: • Understand what you want • Focus on key information • Accept that you are concerned with their needs • How can you engage your readers? • You do this by speaking to them directly and by organizing your message in a structure that reflects their interests. #2 Identify your audience Identify your audience before you start writing. Identify why the reader needs to read the document. Identify all parties who will be interested, not just to technical or business people. Keep in mind the average reader's level of technical expertise. For example, the following individuals may read a business proposal: • Technical Architect • Finance Officer • Subject Matter Experts • Human Resource Manager • Account Manager • Quality Manager • Company Directors
  7. 7. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 7 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing • Programmers #3 Address Pain Points People look for information to find answers. They want to know how to do something or the consequences of what happens if they don't do something. Organize your document to respond to these concerns. Frequently this means describing events as they occur, e.g. you identify the requirements, install the server, test the network, write the support documents, and sign it off when completed. Go through the questions your readers are likely to ask and then organize them in that order. For regulations, you can organize them into a comprehensive table of contents that serves as a document outline. #4 Use Question-and-Answer Formats A very effective method of writing clear documentation is the write section headings as questions. For example: How to install the server? or, How to manage projects? Ask yourself the questions your readers will ask. Answer each question directly. Using this format helps readers to scan the document and find the information they want quickly. It also increases the chances that they will see a question that they didn't have, but need to have answered. This format is enormously helpful to readers. #5 Use 'you to speak to readers The word "You" reinforces the message that the document is intended for your reader in a way that "he," "she," "your company" or "they" cannot. More than any other single technique, using "you" pulls readers into your document and makes it relevant to them. You can also use the word "we" to refer to your company. This reduces the word count and makes the document more accessible to the reader. #6 Use the active voice Active voice makes it clear who is supposed to do what. It eliminates ambiguity about responsibilities. Not: "The server must be installed."
  8. 8. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 8 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing Instead write: "You must install the server." #7 Use the appropriate tone Technical and business documents present challenges because of the highly complex information they often contain. At the same time, you have multiple audiences, some highly knowledgeable, some less so. Because of this getting the tone right can be a challenge. Is it too formal? Too casual? Should I write the text in a more ‘professional’ manner? Is there a way to get the right blend? This comes with practice. One suggestion is to read the document out loud. If it feels wrong, that’s usually an indicator that you need to adjust the tone. One suggestion is to ‘relax’ the phrasing if it sounds too harsh or shorten the sentences, if it feels like it’s losing focus. Short sentences have more energy! #8 Use short sentences Express only one idea in each sentence. Long, complicated sentences often mean that you aren't clear about what you want to say. Short sentences show clear thinking. Short sentences are also better for conveying complex information as they break the information up into smaller, easier-to-process units. Try to vary your sentence structure to avoid stilted prose. #9 Write to one person, not a group Use singular nouns, pronouns, and verbs to direct your writing to one individual reader. This prevents confusion about whether an instruction, or requirement, applies to readers acting individually or in groups.
  9. 9. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 9 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing #10 Use the simplest tense you can Using the present tense avoids the clutter of compound verbs and clearly conveys what is standard practice. Avoid using "you will" or "you could" instead of the present tense "you can ". #11 Use must to convey requirements Be careful when using this word, as, in the wrong context, it can appear harsh. In general, you use these words as follows: • Must for obligation • May for permission • Should for preference • May not to convey prohibitions Avoid the ambiguous "shall", as it is rarely used in everyday conversation #12 Avoid Ambiguity There are several ways you can reduce ambiguity: Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs. Put conditionals such as "only" or "always" next to the words they modify. Write: "you are required to install the server," not "you are only required to install the server." Put long conditions after the main clause. Write, "install the server if you have more than 500 concurrent users," not "if you have more the 500 concurrent users, install the server" #13 Use 'if-then' tables If the material is particularly complex and uses many conditional situations, put it in an "if- then" table.
  10. 10. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 10 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing #14 Avoid Weasel' Words Avoid weasel words and others that will cause confusion. For example, common sources of confusion include: • Undefined abbreviations and acronyms • Two different terms used for the same thing (PC, Desktop, Workstation--choose one) • Legal, technical, but confusing, jargon • Strings of nouns forming complex constructions (pre planning quality efficiency operation procedures) • Stilted language #15 Use Contractions When Appropriate Contractions can help speed-reading, improve accuracy, and some times soften the tone of your letters. For example, very few readers will say, "I do not" in conversation, as opposed to "I don’t." #16 White Space Matters You want your documents to help readers get information quickly. Visually appealing documents are far easier to understand. Technical documents are often dense and confusing. You can improve this by replacing blocks of text with headings, tables, and using more white space. This will help your reader by making the main points readily apparent and grouping related items together. Format your document so it's easy for the read to locate the specific piece of information they need. #17 Use Meaningful Headings Headings attract your readers' attention to important information. They help readers find their way through a document and locate important points. Give each heading lots of information.
  11. 11. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 11 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing How often have you seen several different sections entitled "solution"? Solution for what? If you say "Solution for secure Lotus Notes email," the reader knows exactly what you are talking about, and knows the difference between that section and another section entitled "Solution for Domino Server security." Obviously, headings should not be so long that they overwhelm the material in the section itself. #18 Write Short Sections Short sections break up the material into easily understood pieces, and allow you to use white space to maximum effect. Short sections are easier to read and understand. Long sections can appear difficult and forbidding, even before someone tries to read them. #19 One Idea Per Paragraph One idea – one paragraph. One of the few rules you MUST obey. By limiting each paragraph to one issue will give the document a clean appearance and give the impression that it is easy to read and understand. By presenting only one issue in each designated paragraph, you can use informative headings that reflect the entire issue covered by the paragraph. #20 Use Vertical Lists Vertical lists highlight a series of requirements in a visually clear way. Use vertical lists to help your reader focus on important material. #21 Highlight levels of importance Help the reader understand the order in which things happen Make it easy for the reader to identify all necessary steps in a process Add blank space for easy reading #22 Use emphasis to highlight important points Emphasis techniques are useful to draw the reader’s attention to a line or two. You can use techniques like bold and italics to draw the reader's attention to the subject area.
  12. 12. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 12 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing Don’t use ALL CAPS, which are much harder to read. #23 Ask: How can I write more clearly? Finally... Technical and business documents present challenges because of the highly complex information they often contain. At the same time, you have multiple audiences, some highly knowledgeable, some less so. When you finish a piece of writing, put it aside, then come back to it the next day. See any difference? One of the most effective ways to improve your writing, is to keep asking yourself: how can I help the reader understand what they need to know? Put yourself in their position. Write with their needs, problems, worries in mind. Put their needs before - not after - yours. Summary If you follow the suggestions outlined here, you'll make a major contribution to the success of your company‘s documents. Well-written documents will do a lot to improve reader satisfaction and earn praise for your agency.
  13. 13. 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing 4/7/2014 Page 13 of 13 23-Part Checklist for Better Business Writing About Klariti Klariti develops ‘content assets’ using white papers, case studies, and industry reports. We examine, develop, and benchmark content for Government agencies and Financial Service firms to support their social media, corporate blogs, and email communications. Our website – Business Writing For Smart People - reflects what we do. If you find something there that’s interests you, drop us a line. Ireland Office 63 Ripley Hills, Killarney Road, Bray, Co Wicklow Phone: +353-86-886-459 Email: info@klariti.com Web: http://www.klariti.com Copyright © 2014 Klariti. All Rights Reserved. Klariti logos, and trademarks or registered trademarks of Klariti or its subsidiaries in other countries. Information regarding third party products is provided solely for educational purposes. Klariti is not responsible for the performance or support of third party products and does not make any representations or warranties whatsoever regarding quality, reliability, functionality, or compatibility of these devices or products.

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