Your word choice matters in business writing
In business communications, you’re not trying to impress people by dazzling metaphors or extensive vocabulary. Rather, you want your words to serve your content so readers can understand what you’re saying in a single reading.
That means using words your readers will understand and relate to. Sounds obvious, yet too often in formal writing, people riddle their writing with acronyms, jargon and pompous words. In emails, we can make the mistake of using colloquial expressions (e.g. part and parcel, over the top) that our readers may not understand.
Although the preference in business writing is always for plain language, tone also dictates your word choice. In emails, you’ll use more everyday words than in formal writing where some simple words (e.g. got) sound too informal and conversational. The challenge is to find the right balance of formality and clarity.
The Australian Government Style Manual has a list of words to avoid and alternatives to use instead.
One of the biggest problems in formal business writing is waffle that makes a document feel wordy and passive. One way of sharpening your word choice is to tighten or delete some words. These words will usually be function words, though some content words can also be unnecessary.
Content words, sometimes called working words, are essential to the meaning of a sentence, while function words, sometimes called glue words, make the sentence hang together grammatically. The content words are highlighted in the following sentence.
The major risks to this project have been identified.
In the following example, I’ve shortened the sentence by focusing on the function words.
The diversity audit was completed in October and the results are expected to show a level of demographic data as well as provide insights into how people view the diversity agenda and progress to date. (35 words)
The diversity audit, completed in October, will show demographic data as well as provide insights into how people view the diversity agenda and progress. (24 words)
When you’ve finished writing something, I suggest putting your writing aside overnight and editing it the next day to tighten the language.
Use jargon and acronyms with caution
Most style guides caution writers against jargon and acronyms. In practice, business writing is riddled with jargon and acronyms. I think the use of jargon and acronyms is inevitable when they are widely used in internal communications. They become problematic when documents are shared with others not familiar with them or the documents are in the public domain.
Even if the jargon is widely used within your organisation, stop and think if you could say something more simply. And with acronyms, ask yourself if they are even necessary. If you’re only going to use a term once, an acronym may not be needed.
The common convention is to spell out an acronym in the first instance and then use the acronym in the rest of the document. I don’t think there is any need to spell out commonly used acronyms if you are certain your readers will know them, but no one will be offended if you do spell them out (e.g. ASIC, Australian Securities and Investment Commission).
What I find aggravating is acronyms and full terms used interchangeably throughout a document.
Most business writing is objective, particularly if you are writing for a senior audience or your writing could end up in the public domain. Emails are more informal, but you still need to take care with emails because you never know if your email will be forwarded or read by others.
Too many writers make the mistake of using vague words such as robust, good, significant or very. Your writing will be much clearer if you quantify a statement. For example:
Total debt and current debt rose significantly due to an extension of payment terms.
Total debt and current debt rose by 30% due to extending payment terms.
Or try just deleting the word. For example, Tik Tok says it has ‘robust policies, processes and technologies in place to help protect all users’. What’s the difference between robust policies and policies?
Use the same first-choice word
Use the same first-choice word when referring to the same thing. Sometimes switching words for variety can create confusion. For instance, if I switch between workshop, course, seminar, presentation and session, am I referring to the same thing?
Even if the meaning is clear, inconsistency is annoying: COVID, covid, COVID-19, coronavirus and pandemic.
Assess your nominalisations
Nominalisation is the result of deriving a noun from a verb (communication) or adjective (carelessness).
Some nominalisations are useful, but consider changing a nominalisation into a verb when:
- The nominalisation follows a verb with little specific meaning.
We undertook an investigation.
- When the nominalisation follows There is or There are.
There was a committee agreement.
The committee agreed.
Read my blog on nominalisations to learn more.
First, second and third person
Many businesses encourage the use of first person (I, we) and second person (you) writing because it is more personal and conversational than the third person.
✔ You will receive payment within one month.
❎ Payment will be made within one month.
However, board papers and other formal documents are an exception with most organisations requiring board papers to be in the third person. The problem with the royal ‘we’ is that it’s often not clear who ‘we’ refers to – is it management, a team within the organisation or the whole organisation?
✔ A risk assessment was conducted.
✔ The Risk Team conducted an assessment.
❎ We conducted a risk assessment.
Problematic words and phrases
Problems arise when writers overuse or misuse which, however, this, it is and there is.
While or whilst
When you use while of whilst at the beginning of a sentence, you’re delegating your main point to the end of the sentence. If this is intentional and it works, great, but if you’re writing like this out of habit and detracting from your main point, not so great.
While there is now counsellor support, recruitment of volunteers for the trial has not met expectations.
The recruitment of volunteers for the trial has not met expectations even though counsellor support is now available.
NB There is no difference in meaning between while and whilst. Read what Michael Quinion has to say about while vs whilst. I prefer while as it’s simpler.
However is a useful word; however, it is often overused and incorrectly punctuated. Some people cling to an old-fashioned view that you can’t use it at the beginning of a sentence, but you can. (Read my post on however.)
The correct punctuation when you join two independent clauses with however is to put a semicolon before it and a comma after it because it is an adverbial conjunct (an adverb acting as a conjunction).
The weather forecast was for thunderstorms; however, we were determined to walk the track.
Many people treat however as if it were a conjunction and just have a comma before it. Punctuation may be changing, but many pedants (including me) will still know the traditional rule.
This can cause problems when it’s overused or it’s not clear what it refers back to. It’s sometimes called the ‘slippery this’. Similar disconnects can happen with it and they.
The following example is by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston.
When I wrote the report, I was not aware the driver had left the scene of a serious accident. This has created an unfortunate situation.
What’s created the unfortunate situation – the writer’s lack of awareness or the driver’s behaviour?
It is, There is
Sentences that begin with It is and There is (and variants, e.g. It was, There are) are known as expletive sentences. These phrases are also sometimes called false or filler subjects because they are not the real subject of the sentence.
When you come across an expletive sentence, re-assess it and see if you should start with the real subject.
There are a number of reasons why this project failed.
The project failed because…
In the hands of good writers, expletive sentences can be wonderful.
It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
Toni Morrison, Sula
There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Joy in the right words
As actor Miriam Margolyes says: ‘I enjoy finding the right word and giving each its full measure, its full space in a sentence.’