In business, communication is key. The ability to convey your ideas in writing can save you time, money, and effort. Unfortunately, the last time most of us brushed up our writing skills was in a college English class. Here’s a crash course in better business writing.

Remember the Five W’s

Every reporter learns the foundation of a good story: the Five W’s (and an H). Answering those questions—who, what, where, when, why, and how—ensures that you have communicated your message as clearly as possible, meaning less time wasted on needless back-and-forth. Not every message needs to answer all six questions. For example, if you’re writing an email to your management team about RSVPs for an upcoming leadership retreat, you might convey the following information:

Who—Senior management

What—Respond to leadership retreat invitation

When—Reply by Tuesday

Why—Numbers needed to make reservations

How—Email Nina

Ask yourself these questions every time you sit down to write, whether it’s a note to a colleague about a business lunch or a report to your investors on quarterly earnings.

Remember the Three C’s

Good writing, whether it’s for an academic paper or a business plan, should be clear, concise, and consistent. Always keep the Three C’s in mind as you write. Are you communicating your ideas clearly? Are you keeping it concise by avoiding unnecessary wordiness? Are you staying consistent, using the same terms and format throughout the document?

While you don’t need to follow a formal style guide, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, in your business writing, do make a decision about things like abbreviations, date format, and Oxford commas. Whatever you decide to do, stick with it.

You’ll be graded (or in the case of business writing, judged) on the following criteria:

  • Don’t use slang. Remember, even if you’re penning a casual email, you’re still a professional.
  • Double check commonly mixed up words such as its/it’s and affect/effect. Grammarly, an online proofreading service, checks for contextual spelling errors such as these.
  • Always write in active voice, not passive voice: “I ordered the extra staples,” not “the extra staples were ordered.” Passive voice avoids responsibility, while active voice takes charge.
  • Avoid clichés, jargon, and buzzwords. They obfuscate meaning, burying your message beneath layers of fluff and incomprehensible terminology.

We Live in a Digital Age

Most business communication is electronic, whether it’s email, instant messaging, or word processing. Knowing your way around the basic tools, even if you’re not a tech expert, can increase the effectiveness of your communication. Head down to the computer lab and practice the following skills:

Create a template. If you send out similar documents, such as reports or memos, on a regular basis or to multiple recipients, write them once and save them as templates to reuse later. If you really want to get fancy, you can create fields, such as date or recipient, using a mail merge.

Send PDFs of important documents. A PDF, or Portable Document Format, is a type of file that can be opened on any computer with Adobe’s Acrobat Reader installed. The best thing about PDFs is that they can’t be edited by the recipient. This makes them ideal for documents such as contracts, forms, and invoices.

Observe email etiquette. “Reply All” is rarely a good idea. Also, make sure that if you’re sending an attachment, you’ve remembered to actually attach it. Having to send an apologetic follow-up email makes you look at best absent-minded and at worst unprofessional.

So, does your business writing make the grade? Leave a comment below!