STYLE IN BUSINESS WRITING
The term, "style," in this guide to business writing refers to the shape, voice, and force of sentences.
Business writing style differs significantly from academic writing style.
Consider the following sentence, recommended to student writers in a textbook about academic writing:
"As a third-year college student majoring in history who has already acquired a bit over ten thousand dollars in student loan debt, I find McPherson and Schapiro’s rejection of Clinton’s national service plan to be short sighted and insensitive to the experiences of many college students who are struggling to put themselves through school only to face enormous financial burdens upon graduation."
Consider these stylistic variables:
Sentence Length: Long (50 words)
Sentence Structure: Complex (1 main clause + at least one subordinate clause)
Voice: Active ("I find.")
Point of View: Self-reference, first person singular ("I")
Social Reference: Yes. (The writer refers to other voices, McPherson’s and Schapiro’s, on the same subject and formulates a thesis/position in relation to these voices.)
Agent of Action Identified: Yes. ("I")
Reference to Mental States--An Individual in the Act of Thinking: Yes. ("I find.")
The above sentence does satisfy the requirements for a "good" academic sentence. Still, you will never read a sentence like the one above in a business document. Business readers do not want to know what is going on inside a writer's mind. Instead, they want writers to propose plans or recommend actions that will benefit the company, and to do so as concisely as possible.
To develop an effective business writing style:
- Use shorter sentences.
- Use simpler sentence structures.
- Use active voice.
- Write from the point of view of the company.
- Write more univocally. (The voice of the company is always already a social voice).
- Identify the agents of actions unless there is a good reason for hiding agency.
- Avoid nominalizing verbs. (changing verbs into nouns, i.e. "decide" into "decision.")
- Recommend action rather than refer to individual mental states.
- Avoid qualifiers that weaken recommendations or express doubt.
- Avoid self reference and references to individual states of mind.
Use shorter sentences:
"U.S. Research, Inc. conducted the interviews."
Use simpler sentence structures:
"The product name must meet the following tests:" (Not, "If we want the product to sell well in the Northwest and eventually in select, international markets as well as to compete with distributors of similar name brands, the name must meet the following tests:)
Use active voice:
"The term, ‘Cascade’ conjures images of nature." (Not, "Images of nature are associated with the term, ‘Cascade.'")
Write from the point of view of the company:
"The company must change the name of its bottled water product." (Not, I recommend that the company change the name of its product.")
Write more univocally. (The voice of the company is always already a social voice).
"The company must change the name of its bottled water product." (Not, "Even though Jerry in the Advertising Department and Sue in Public Relations disagree, the company must…etc.")
Identify the agents of actions:
"The sales representatives adopted a new approach." (Not, "A new approach was adopted.")
Avoid nominalizing verbs: (changing verbs into nouns, i.e. "decide" into "decision.")
"The managers decided to change the name of our project." (Not, "The managers made a decision."
Recommend actions rather than refer to individual mental states:
"We recommend names that parallel the age-old and pure qualities of the product." (Not, "We believe you should use…," or "We think," "We imagine," "We presume," etc.)
Avoid qualifiers that weaken recommendations or express doubt:
"We recommend that your company avoid ‘earth surface’ words." (Not, "We tentatively recommend that your company, if at all possible, avoid,‘earth surface’ words.")
Caution: These rules may change depending upon the company and rhetorical situation, but they offer a starting point to improve your business writing style.
Note: Many of the above sentences came from an actual business document-- a Northwest marketing company’s proposal that their client company change the name of its bottled water product from "Sweetwater" to "Earth2O."
ADDITIONAL EXAMPLES AND ADVICE ABOUT STYLE
To help you write any business document that requires you to make recommendations, consider the following advice.
1. Select words in an appropriate register for your reader.
Register: The vocabulary and tone that fits a particular social group.
2. Use active rather than passive voice.
Active voice: Uses action verbs.
Passive voice: Uses forms of the verb, "to be," (is, be, am, are, was, were, been)
Examples of Passive Voice:
Changed to Active Voice:
3. Use the imperative voice for recommendations:
Imperative Voice: Begins with a verb, assumes the subject, "you."
Explanation: The imperative voice is concise and eliminates the moral tone of "should" and the overly emphatic tone of "must."
4. Use verbal rather than nominal forms of words.
Nominal forms: Verbs changed into nouns or adjectives.
Verbal forms: Change nouns back into verbs.
5. Use parallel structure, particularly within lists.
Parallel structure: Phrases that repeat the same grammatical structure.
Explanation: Parallelism enables readers to read documents more efficiently.
Example of non-parallel structure:
"Currently, the company has:
Example converted to parallel structure:
"Currently the company:
6. Eliminate Unnecessary Words to Communicate Concisely:
"My suggestion is that we must begin to socialize our employees into the Lincoln culture so that they internalize the core values of cost-reduction and high-quality that Lincoln embraces."
"Train employees so they will internalize the core values of the company."
7. Divide long sentences into shorter sentences.
Long Sentences: 25 words or more.
8. Avoid qualifiers.
Qualifiers: Words that weaken claims.
9. Avoid personalizing pronouns, and therefore personalizing problems.
Change "You need to"… to "Lincoln Electric needs to…"