Clarity is one of the most important qualities to aim for in any type of writing. It’s as true for academe as it is for business and industry. Without it, you can easily end up communicating the wrong things, leading to a misunderstanding in the reader’s part.
For business, clarity is especially important. State your thoughts in a way that can be interpreted in more than one way and you can bet that someone will finish the document with the incorrect meaning in mind.
So, how do you improve the clarity of your business writing?
Start Early, Revise Plenty
A lot of people delay what they need to write, always finding some sort of excuse (“I need to make this call first,” “I have to check my inbox first,” “I need to take my break first”) to put it off. They wait for the last minute to compose that email, business letter or report. As a result, they end up pressed for time, rushing through the task and acting like an overburdened workhorse throughout the ordeal.
Only when you start early do you really end up completing the draft with enough time to do revision. And revision, that act of reviewing and editing your copy, is the activity that really allows you to improve its clarity. Oftentimes, you’re too wound up and invested in what you’ve written to objectively judge whether your writing is clear enough or if there are areas you can improve on.
Never expect to get things right the first time. It’s always better to rush through a first draft of any document and leave yourself enough time to make revisions later. If you expect your first drafts to be perfect, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
It’s also during revision when most instances of wordiness, whether it’s run-on sentences, unnecessary words or repetitive ideas, are caught. While a wordy report can still convey the message clearly, it does so at an unnecessary length. It’s not entirely implausible that confusion can occur when so many words get in the way.
Eliminating wordiness creates a more concise document. With workplaces as busy as they are, conciseness is more valuable than you probably think. Shorter emails will always get read sooner than longer emails, just as employees are more likely to pay attention to a one-paragraph memo than a two-page one.
Lead With Your Main Point
With any business document, always lead with the main point. If someone put a gun to your head and told you to reduce whatever you’re writing to one or two sentences, what will those sentences be? That’s what you lead with. This ensures that readers get the core element of your message as early possible — the rest are just details for elaboration.
Follow some form of organizational structure when you write, whether you’re composing a short email or a long report. It can be as simple grouping related ideas in tight chunks or as involved as creating an mind map of your ideas before starting the draft.
Organizing information will do a lot to help clarity. Even in short two-paragraph emails, for instance, your recipients can end up missing important information if you pepper them throughout the sentences without any conscious organization. If you put all the important details that readers need to remember right up front, however, you minimize the chances they will miss it. If clarity can be improved by simple organization in short documents, can you imagine how much improvements it can bring to long, multi-page reports and similar business documents?
Write For Your Readers
Before starting to write, always define your target readers in a concrete and definite way. If you do that, you can tailor your tone, style and word choice to match what speaks effectively to your audience.
While it’s always a good idea to write using simple, straightforward language, it’s not always necessary. Contrary to what’s frequently told, jargon can be acceptable — provided the people your writing is aimed at (e.g. if you’re an engineer emailing fellow engineers) can understand those unfamiliar words. Obviously, this only works if you’re 100% certain about your limited audience — if you’re not, don’t even risk it.
Keep It Simple
With that said, it’s still in your best interest to write using plain language. While the report you’re writing may be aimed at a technical group of readers, it’s very possible that a non-technical high-level manager might want to peek at it at some point. Wouldn’t it be better if he can understand it, too, instead of having to call on one of his personnel to explain the details?
Additionally, keeping writing simple is your most effective route for avoiding misunderstanding. When an idea is expressed so plainly that it can’t be interpreted as something else, you can be sure that no one will draw the wrong conclusions out of it.
Think concrete and unambiguous. Use words that convey tangible meaning, rather than ones that are inexact and nonfigurative. Convey observable and measurable thoughts, rather than abstract concepts. Make concrete suggestions, not wishy-washy ideas. Set definite terms, rather than open-ended conclusions.
Too many people in business use abstract words and concepts when concrete and tangible ones will work better. While being ambiguous might cover your ass in some cases, habitually writing in that manner will lead to the most unclear business documents.
Imagine a manager making a decision on which proposal to recommend among three in his table. Or a vice president trying to sort out accountability for a project mishap. Or an employee planning his schedule for the day. All of these people needs tangible details and concrete information to do their job, rather than empty theories and abstract concepts.
Use A Business Writing Software
Hopefully, your company has been smart enough to use a business writing software. If not, then you can use standard grammar checkers and similar English writing products. While these tools aren’t free, they can save you from a lot of the headaches that go with proofreading and ensuring that your writing is free from mechanical errors. The more advanced the software you use, the better the results will be, especially with the really smart features in modern business writing programs.