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Effective Business Writing

Yesterday evening I attended a seminar arranged by City Information GroupScott Keyser was speaking on the topic of Effective Business Writing.

Scott notes that Business writing often lacks personality and sometimes isn’t straight-forward and easy to read. We are busy individuals, we will only read things that are captivating and interesting. Even if it is a topic that is of interest, we do not want to read written communication that is full of long winded sentences and formal words. For instance why is it necessary to write “for the purpose of” when simply writing “for” will suffice? Similarly why write “with reference to” when you could just write “about” or “regarding”?

Rudolf Flesch devoted his career to studying the readability of written communication. He found there is a relationship between the average sentence length of a piece of writing and the ease of readability. If the average sentence length is too short the piece of writing can be boring, and if the average sentence length is too long it can be difficult to understand. The optimal average sentence length appears to be around 16 words per sentence.

Interestingly, you can get your writing scored on these measures by using Microsoft Word. To do this, go to Tools, Options, Spelling and Grammar, then tick the box Show Readability statistics. This will show some interesting statistics about your writing, and show your average words per sentence (should be as close to 16 as possible) and the Flesch Reading Ease (how easy your document is to read – this should be above 50). An analysis of my blog so far shows that my average sentence length is 18 and my Flesch Reading Ease is 55. I guess I have some way to go!

Attempting to scientifically analyze my writing is an interesting task, and may be a bit of a time waster! Effective business writing comes down to writing with your reader in mind. Don’t try to sound intelligent by using formal or complicated language, and don’t phrase things in a long winded way. Also try your best to captivate your audience. Don’t give them any excuse to stop reading!

Any other thoughts on what constitutes good business writing?

3 comments to this post

  •  :  Avoid those irritating expressions like "going forward" and "touch base" that everyone hates. The BBC recently compiled a list of the 20 most reviled - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7733264.stm
  •  :  I loved the list of hated and hackneyed phrases that Fiona mentioned. No. 20 refers to 'actually'. I was always taught that you NEVER used 'actually' either when writing or speaking, unless you lived in Kensington, in which case it was quite appropriate to say in response to a question on where you happened to live: "Act-u-ally I (much emphasis here on the I) live in Kensington."
  •  :  Actually (sorry, Sue!) an FRE score of 55% is not bad, given that Dr Flesch deemed that plain English starts at 60%. The two readability measures he looked at were average sentence length (ASL) in words and average word length (ASW, Average Syllables per Word) in syllables. So if you're writing techie stuff with lots of long words and/or your sentences are long, your readability will go down. Wherever you can, replace a long, jargon, foreign or technical word with an everyday English equivalent. The challenge is applying all this to writing that succeeds in persuading someone to do something, or selling them an idea, recommendation, product or service. Write for Results is launching its first open training course 28 April in central London, a one-day workshop called 'Write for Results: Power Copywriting that Makes the Sale'. If you're interested, go to writeforresults.com and click on the link in the right-hand column for more info. Andy Maslen (my business partner) and I are delivering it, so you'll get over 45 years' worth of writing experience in one room... Scott

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