What Is Business Writing?


Writing is the most common way of asking someone to do something. This section is about crafting your writing to increase your chances of getting them to do it. In other sections of this site, we discuss how people think and how you can influence them, here is where you learn to tune your interactions to ensure you attain maximum effect on those you wish to influence. As writing (e.g., emails, letters, reports) will be your main communication tool, you should start with how to create business writing that gets the job done.

How To Get Your Own Way is the work of two ex-military intelligence officers. The British Intelligence Corps' motto is Manui Dat Cognitio Vires (Knowledge gives strength to the arm). All of the pages on this site will improve your knowledge of how to influence. The aim of this section is to boost the biceps of the arm that will deliver that knowledge: your writing.

So, What Is Business Writing?

Business writing is writing to get something else done.

Stories and poems are not examples of business writing. They are self-contained. You read a story to understand the story. You read a poem to enjoy the poem. You don't do that with business writing. You read a business report to help you smash the competition off the face of the planet.

People Are Busy - Don't Waste Their Time

It's Monday. I'm late for work, and I haven't ironed my shirt yet. I'm now praying for some miracle with the traffic, because there's an email I need to send before 9 o'clock. I also need to find 20 minutes to go over the presentation that I'm giving at half past nine. Roll on 10 o'clock when I will be able to settle into the day's routine.

There are also some longer-term things bothering me. My annual personal appraisal report is not looking as good as I'd hoped this year, and my promotion is starting to look pretty unlikely. What if I don't get promoted?

Parts of that may sound familiar. The important point is that when you are trying to get things done, irelevance is swept away without ceremony. No one has time for irrelevant stuff. To ensure your writing is effective, you need to understand the environment you're sending it to. You should think of that environment as a busy one – too busy for rambling, difficult to comprehend correspondence.

No one cares what you've got to say unless it affects them or entertains them.

So, when putting your business correspondence together, you have two choices:
  • Make it short, or
  • Make it entertaining.
Or both.

Twenty years ago, the average human attention span was 20 seconds. Today, you are already looking for the link to the next section. But first, you should read below to find out just why sharp business writing is important.

Subordinates' and Dunces' Emails Are Deleted First

The business environment is busy and laden with consequence. Unfortunately there are also a lot of people, some of whom want you to do things for them. The relationship between the writer and the reader in these situations is crucial to understanding just how much effort, thought and interest will be put into reading what you produce.

Emails from your boss are far more likely to be read carefully than those from your peers or subordinates. Provided we're talking generally, I reckon that's a safe bet. But if we examine more closely how much time you allocate to emails, we would find that the "boss factor" is only one reason for being a little more patient.

There are other factors determining how much time you dedicate to things like emails. High on the list is the credibility of the person writing to you. Your patience will diminish if you think the writer is a bit thick. Unfortunately, this is something everybody does. So, to improve the chances of your business writing being read or actioned, you must ensure you come across as an intellectual peer…or at least in the same league.

Protect Your Credibility to Avoid Being Ignored

Whether it's right or wrong, readers make assumptions about a writer's capabilities and education when they read the writer's correspondence. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Someone's writing is usually a good indicator of their abilities. I'm not alone in that opinion either.

In 2011, internet entrepreneur Charles Duncombe conducted an experiment on one of his retail sites which showed that a single spelling mistake cut his online sales in half. This is a common story cited by many online retailers. I can remember hearing a story of one internet store that had a promotion on a specific mountain bike. Frustrated because he'd sold almost none, the sales manager logged on to look at his promotion. To his horror, he spotted a basic grammar error in the advert, which he hurriedly had corrected. Sales starting rolling in immediately, and, within a week, the bike had sold out.

It's a simple equation: bad writing = not credible. Credibility is something which carries over from days to weeks and beyond. It is not something you should trade away lightly with poor writing. Once the anchor that you are not credible is set in your boss's mind you are going to have to try twice as hard to flip that into something positive.

Imagine this. Your boss's inbox has 80 unread emails in it. He just clicked on your email. Because you are subordinate to him, his mouse cursor is already hovering over the next email. As he skim-reads yours, he is looking for the key points. While scanning for the key points (because they're not immediately obvious), he encounters a couple of basic grammar mistakes. At this point, you're toast. Your credibility is shot. He clicks his mouse, and now he has 79 unread emails in his inbox. Well done, you. A great day's work. You've had no effect, and your credibility has taken a punch in the kidneys.

Bad Grammar Will Kill Your Credibility

English grammar is a set of rules that govern how our language is structured. Don't worry. I'm not going to talk about that now. Besides, I don't have to. If you're a native English speaker, your grammar is probably close to perfect. The problem, however, is that little gap between close to perfect and perfect. That little gap can cause a lot of damage. Do you remember the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster in 2003? Columbia's thermal protection system was almost entirely intact. It was close to perfect. Heartbreakingly, "almost entirely intact" wasn't good enough, and on 1st February 2003, Columbia disintegrated over Texas shortly after launch, killing everyone on board. It was a tragic example of how a small flaw can cause a disaster. Similarly, even a tiny gap in your grammar know-how can "kill" your credibility.

I can pretty much guarantee your writing is intelligible, but intelligible does not mean credible. A dodgy apostrophe or an erroneous capital letter can sink you. If you write "We have identified two solution's", that incorrect apostrophe in solution's will tell your readers that you're not as bright as they are. Your solutions might be amazing, but they won't save your credibility. That will already have been wrecked by the apostrophe. If you are presenting ideas that challenge existing preconceptions, your job will be made much harder if your writing contains grammatical errors. Those you are challenging could write off your ideas without confronting their preconceptions because of your poor grammar. They'll think something like this: "Someone who doesn't even know the difference between it's and its isn't telling me what to think."

I am not saying you have to form beautiful, grammatically sound sentences every time. Far from it. That last "sentence" of mine wasn't even a sentence. There is a whole section coming up dedicated to using non-sentences and, in particular, one-word "sentences". Techniques like this are useful for impact and to keep your writing natural. But these are deliberate deviations from formal grammar, and I fully expect readers to get that. Real grammar mistakes, on the other hand, are a different story. Stick a few of those in a letter, and you're instantly earmarked as bottom of the class.

Grammar: the difference between a company that knows its shit and one that knows it's shit.

We have a list of the worst grammar errors you can make, you should address any of your own grammar weaknesses that order. Fill any gaps in your grammar knowledge as you work your way down that list. Catastrophes with apostrophes is at the top for good reason. It's not exhaustive, but it will go a long way to moving your writing credibility grade from a C to an A.

Bad Grammar and Being "Clever" Are Poor Bedfellows

Everyone likes to watch people slip on a bannana skin that they have seen but the victim hasn't. This is what elementary grammar errors initially tickle in our psyche. Unfortunately, unlike the banana skin, the follow up feeling to a grammar error is of dismissal with no comedic overtones. It suffices to say that you will not be forgiven for grammar errors. This is especially true if you're trying to be clever. Here are some examples I've come across of people trying to be clever but failing:
The days of this society is numbered."
(Should be: "The days of this society are numbered.")
I saw this quote on some lanky student's home-made T shirt. I'm sure he has some profound reasoning for believing society is ending, but whatever it is, I don't care. His grammar error suggests he's not likely to have the sharpest of minds, and, therefore, whatever he has to say is not likely to be convincing.
"If your going through hell, keep going."
(Should be: "If you're going through hell, keep going.")
I saw this on the internet. These words were tattooed on a skinhead's head in bold letters. Confusing your and you're is a basic mistake. I mean, come on, if you're going to get something tattooed on your skull, at least check the grammar and spelling. It might be a wrong conclusion, but that particular tattoo smacks of a low intellect. His encouragement to keep going in times of adversity is commendable, but who wants to take advice from someone with a primary-school-level error tattooed on his swede?
"Recruitment at it's best."
(Should be: "Recruitment at its best.")
This was a neon sign I saw outside a recruitment agency in Northern Ireland. If you don't know the difference between its and it's, then you're hardly likely to be the best at anything. That's probably unfair, but this was my first, and last, impression of that agency.
Nothing under $5.If you don't like the prices, to bad."
(Should be: "If you don't like the prices, too bad.")
This was a sign in a shop in the US. The sign tells us the proprietor is aggressive and does not suffer fools. Unfortunately for him, it also tells us he is one.

So, to conclude, you cannot afford to put grammar errors in your work. Those who think that's hogwash, need to think again. Remember, first impressions play a key role when people form opinions.
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What is business writing?