Keep in mind that the purpose of business writing differs from that of fiction. Get familiar with the nuances of your genre by considering some coursework in technical writing, business writing or novel writing.
That being said, some writing strategies apply across the board for all kinds of writing. Decent grammar and proper phrasing are relevant no matter what type of writing your doing. For our purposes, we’ll start with the big picture: the structure of your document.
Your introduction must grab the reader’s attention right off the bat. In general, it needs to have three things to be compelling:
- An interesting hook that draws your reader in.
- A clear purpose or objective.
- A lucid thesis, if you’re writing an essay or persuasive piece.
In fiction, ensure you’re opening with an action or change of state that creates conflict and captures the reader’s attention. For more on fiction, consider a workshop.
Whatever you’re writing, you need to harness your reader’s imagination sooner rather than later and preferably as early as the first paragraph. Make a bold statement, posit a controversial hypothesis, garner a new insight into 18th century biology—just say something to pique your reader’s interest.
The Body of Your Piece—Keep It Flawless
Subsequent to your introduction, your ideas should unfold in a clear, concise and compelling manor. One way to do this is with a topic sentence, which introduces your reader to a new idea and then support that idea in the next few sentences. In an opinion piece, your arguments should follow a logical sequence addressing the possible objections of your audience. The same applies to a persuasive business presentation, and it’s also true of fiction. Sudden changes in topic or setting are disorienting to the reader. Keep it smooth.
- Ensure that one idea transitions neatly to the next thought.
- Check that your arguments follow a logical progression.
- Anticipate the audience’s objections and make sure your ideas are presented in a way that minimizes those concerns.
In Conclusion–We’re Not Done Yet
Your conclusion is the last word you leave with your readers, so it must be powerful. In a persuasive piece, many writers prefer to end with a call to action that motivates their audience to participate in some way, or at least a memorable statement that surmises the arguments you’ve put forth. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, your writing must have a logical conclusion that stems from the ideas you’ve discussed throughout.
- Does your conclusion match and enhance your thesis statement?
- Have you proved the point you set out to make?
- Does your conclusion convey the action you want your audience to take?
- Does the conclusion leave the reader satisfied?
- In fiction, have you avoided deus ex machina interventions to resolve the conflict?
Once you’ve reviewed the broader concepts to ensure that your work in heading in the right direction, you can get down to the nitty gritty. Read the piece aloud, at least once, to find any areas where the wording interrupts the flow. Punctuate accordingly.
Proper grammar generally means you follow the rules of the language. But those rules are in flux. [Never start a sentence with a conjunction.] Language evolves. And conventions change. So while your verbs have to agree in number with your subjects, a bit of flexibility in the way you use the rules determines the personality and tone of your piece. (More on tone later.) [That’s a fragment, FYI.] This is a blog, not an academic paper—that’s why I can get away with this stuff. Generally speaking, you can’t. Stick to the rules, if you’re writing a professional piece.
- Are the sentences grammatically correct? (Use ‘He likes beans;’ not ‘we likes beans.’)
- Do you have proper punctuation and capitalization?
- Do you have any remaining fragments that aren’t full sentences? Example: “The book contains many mythological references. For example, the story of Hercules.” The second sentence is a fragment.
- Are your ideas phrased in active voice, not passive voice? Example: ‘They were impressed by his speech.’ It should be: ‘His speech impressed them.’ A few instances of passive voice won’t be a problem, just make sure your whole document isn’t written that way.
- Are your sentences wordy and sprawling? Even if they are grammatically correct, it might be a good idea to make two separate sentences or to rephrase long-winded thoughts in order to avoid too many qualifiers, which can obscure the true meaning of the statement. (See what I mean?)
- Are items in a list parallel? Incorrect: ‘His goals are the economy, to win the vote, and health care.’ It should be: ‘His goals are to win the vote, improve the economy, provide heath care, and hook up with his intern.’
Choosing the appropriate language and tone for your document is essential in creating the most powerful communication. Generally speaking, business documents follow a straightforward style that emphasizes payoffs for investors. People take their money seriously, so the documents tend to be serious. If you pepper your work with a creative tone, you would certainly stand out. A bit of humor could distinguish you from competitors, but it’s a double-edged sword. Choose the wrong tone, and your audience loses their faith and trust in you—it’s that simple. In fiction, the tone of your language dictates to some degree the plot pacing. Choose the tone that best conveys the atmosphere that envelops your story. Generally speaking, the tone conveys the attitude of the narrator/author—that’s what makes it so powerful. Tone is also very subtle. It’s an effect created by minor choices in diction, syntax and grammar. (That last idea is from Wikipedia)
- Is your phrasing appropriate for the audience (i.e. no colloquialisms)?
- Are you being too demanding/assertive when using a call to action?
- Do you use inclusive language to instill a sense of camaraderie? Example: ‘Q4 will be a tough quarter for you.’ Alternative: ‘Q4 will be a tough quarter for us.’
- If you’re struggling with tone, consider this discussion on Storytelling for Business [This should not be included as a bullet point, LOL FYI]
- Does your vocabulary demonstrate an authority on the topic? (In your presentation on microprocessors, avoid referring to them as ‘superhero little tiny thingies.’)
- Have you explained technical and professional terms, if necessary?
- Are the vocabulary and rhythm of the text appropriate for your intended audience?
- Have you eliminated adverbs in favor of more precisely descriptive verbs and nouns?
- Are your words painting a clear picture with appropriate phrasing for the topic?
- Have you checked for usage errors like ‘affect’ instead of ‘effect’ or ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’?
- Double check apostrophes and your ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ and ‘your’ and ‘you’re.’
- Read slowly and aloud to catch spelling errors like ‘fried’ for ‘friend’ (things the spell check won’t catch.)
- Double check for proper capitalization especially on names or titles.
- Are your paragraphs of reasonable length?
- Are your headings and bulleted items appropriate?
- Do you need footnotes or headings?
- Is your font appropriate (no Comic Sans anywhere) and chosen for maximum legibility?
- Does the spacing follow the guidelines for your document?
- Have you included necessary visual aids?
- Are your visual aids relevant and helping you make your point?
- Do your visual aids have a compelling and actionable title? Lame: ‘Q4 results.’ Better: ‘Q4 results show sales are up 4%.’ (Here’s a shout out to Dr. Thomas Hajduk of Carnegie Mellon University for that last insight.)
Plagiarism is a hot topic today with loads of websites dedicated both to fostering it and preventing it. It goes without saying that if you need to borrow ideas from someone else, you’re not the first one in history to do so. Just don’t make yourself look like a moron by pretending that idea was yours. You should always assume that your professor has a better handle on Goethe than you do. Always err on the side of more citations rather than fewer. (I mean ‘less.’ I mean ‘fewer’ Damn it!) [Fewer is correct, FYI] Obviously, if you’re writing something like a blog, you have a bit more leeway in terms of how to cite your sources, because blogging is an informal platform. If you’re writing for academics, you’d better get it right.
- Have you followed MLA or similar conventions for how to cite your sources?
- Are long quotations adequately indented?
- Have you italicized the names of journals and publications?
- Have you adequately cited online material?
- Have you used quotation marks appropriately? Have you put the punctuation in the right place for the quote?
At the end of the day, being able to edit and proofread your document is as important as the writing itself. Give yourself the best chance for success by becoming proficient in proofreading. No matter what business you’re in, communication is the key to success. The sooner your hone your writing and editing skills, the sooner you can mobilize the people around you to act in your interests. Check out the Art of Persuasion or Blog Writing to take yourself to the next level. Write on! Ha!
(And yes, now that you’re all editing gurus, you can leave any comments about my wayward punctuation down below.)