People sometimes try to justify they way they write by saying, “that’s my style,” but in business communication, clarity and economy of language take precedence.
Style refers to how writers present themselves on the page: the words they choose, the length and structure of sentences, the tone, and the use of techniques such as metaphors to simplify concepts. Authors of novels and poetry have additional techniques, and we enjoy the hidden meanings, the imagery and symbolism, and the suspense of not knowing what will happen next.
Business readers don’t want to be held in suspense, they aren’t looking to be entertained, and they don’t want mystery. They want to know what they need to know, so they can move on to the next email or their next task. In business, an effective style consists of writing that doesn’t draw attention to itself. That’s not to say there’s no room to be your authentic self. Some people write shorter sentences than other people, some folks use more commas than others, and some prefer a more conversational tone than their peers. No problem.
But scattering key ideas throughout a message or stringing together wordy, disjointed sentences is not a good style, because it’s not the reader’s job to figure it out. It is through clear, succinct writing, in a conversational, professional delivery, that ideas are communicated.
In major news publications such as the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and the Washington Post, writers explain issues in a style that is easy to consume. They do it with these writing habits in mind:
- Avoid long sentences — Winding sentences with multiple clauses and phrases are difficult to follow. The reader feels ensnared in a thicket of underbrush. Some famous authors, notably William Faulkner, are known for long sentences, but authors have more latitude.
- Vary sentence length — If you have one or two longer sentences, come in with a shorter one. It breaks the pattern of long segments, and the brain likes variety. The shifting structure helps the reader breeze along.
- Opt for simpler language — This doesn’t mean write for a fourth grade audience. It means using familiar words, because words of everyday conversation tend to be shorter, more visual, and more familiar. It also means using comparisons (metaphors and similes), and explanation to move readers from the abstract to the concrete.
- Strip buzzwords — When you use the same dull cliches that millions of other people use, your writing sounds just as boring as theirs, and it sounds inauthentic. Most important is that those words can interfere with clarity because they often are ambiguous. If you say you don’t have the bandwidth to do something, are you referring to time, money, equipment, people, facilities, or something else? The answer could be any of those, and it’s not the reader’s job to guess what it is.
- Slow beginning — When you begin to write, you tend to work your way up to the reason why your are writing, at least in most messages. The brain naturally thinks that way, so it’s all right to do this in your first version, but when you reread it, cut out any fluff that prevents you from taking a direct route to your main point. Your message will be presented clearly and efficiently, which is what readers want (disappointing news is an exception).
Simplified writing is important to a professional style, but simplified does not mean simplistic. You are not writing for a fourth grade audience. Keeping information simplified means the reader can fluidly move through your ideas without having to reread them two or three times.
A good style considers the needs of a busy reader. In “Elements of Style,” E.B. White said that style is shaped mostly by the writer’s attitude toward the reader. The writer “must sympathize with the reader’s plight,” White said. “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”