Lecture 2: Introduction: Business Writing Definition, Skills, Course Aims
Who this course is for
Welcome to this course on business writing, a term used here for communications at or on behalf of companies, government departments and their agencies, non-government and other organisations, and institutions of all types. It also covers writing related to managing personal business affairs such as banking, insurance, and correspondence with government departments.
This course is for people who would like to write with greater ease and impact. If your writing does not do justice to the quality of your ideas, efforts, and skills and takes up an inordinate amount of time relative to the pay-off, or holds you back from pursuing your legitimate rights and interests in conducting personal business affairs, you have landed in the right place.
What you will learn
This course teaches the principles and techniques common to good writing of all genres and applies them to the aims and needs of writing in the workplace. Among the key themes are using plain, concrete language to engage readers rather than mystifying them with jargon, abstractions, generalisations, and pretentious but meaningless expressions. New technology has brought new platforms and formats for communicating. But the same principles and techniques of clear, convincing writing apply to tweets, blogs, and listicles as much as they do to business reports and white papers.
Professional writers take years to develop their skills to a point they can make a secure living from writing as a full-time occupation. Many acquire master’s degrees in fields such as journalism and creative writing. You may ask, then, how a six-week only course on written business communications can make a significant difference in your writing. I considered this question a lot in designing this course. I wanted it to be concise yet comprehensive, so that people in full-time jobs could manage without being overwhelmed. Not only did I aim to cover enough ground to justify the tuition fee, I was determined that my students would see a transformation in the quality and impact of their writing.
The approach of this course
The customary approach to business writing courses and books is top-down: professional writers deliver their expertise to learners, many of whom become overwhelmed by the volume of material covered. Instead, I decided on a bottom-up approach, looking at the challenges from the viewpoint of businesspeople not trained to write. This is a perspective I gained during a break from journalism to pursue a master’s degree in business management, leading to jobs as a consultant and executive. More recently, I worked as a freelance editor for companies seeking to improve their external communications.
Working with non-editorial colleagues, I was surprised to discover many misconceptions about what writing entails, and the lack of training in business writing. These attitudes and approaches seemed to explain why so much written business communication fails to achieve its ambitions.
Then, from the principles and techniques used by people who make their livelihood from writing, I selected the most important. These are the principles and techniques I have learned from many years working as a financial and political news correspondent and editor at numerous publications, some of them household names. Different organisations often have their own house styles. But the same basic principles have cropped up at every organisation, as well as in books, courses, and workshops on creative and business writing. They are also at the core of the classics of literature and best-selling non-fiction books.
The first section discusses the state of contemporary business writing. It seeks to demystify writing by considering and correcting common misconceptions.
The next two sections look at jargon and word clutter. Many business professionals use specialised terminology and buzzwords to impress audiences with their expertise, a tactic that tends to backfire. The sections discuss the plain language movement and how some organisations use clear, simple writing to gain competitive advantage.
The fourth section discusses why using concrete language engages readers while abstract terms and generalised observations turn them away. We look at how grammatical and stylistic choices can help create clear, concise, engaging communications. Running through these lectures are the mantras of writing wisdom: “Show, don’t tell,” and “Never bore the reader.”
In the penultimate section, we discuss how to make your writing process efficient, so that instead of getting stuck trying to do everything at once, you have a system of breaking the job into manageable tasks. The final section deals with various approaches for structuring documents, to make your writing flow logically and smoothly.
What you can expect to get from this course
The course discusses examples of various types of business writing. But it does not seek to be a compendium of formats. When you have mastered the techniques of the course, you should be able to adapt your writing to any format, from emails and reports to white papers, or letters to address personal business affairs.
By the end of the course, you should understand and be able to apply the key principles and techniques of competent writing. Instead of being overwhelmed by writing projects, you will have an efficient process and know how to use words and structure your ideas to engage and convince your audience. Six sessions over six weeks (if you keep pace with the course) is too short a time to become an expert writer. But you should see an impact on your writing, and find that managers, colleagues, customers, clients, and associates value your ideas even more because of the ease and clarity with which you express them.
This assumes you work through the exercises accompanying each section. Writing takes lots of practice. Even people who make their livelihood from writing constantly need to remind themselves — or be reminded by editors or readers — of where their writing works or does not work in getting their message across.
Mastering the content of this course will not necessarily make writing pain-free. Even for those who make a living from it, writing is not easy. As your skills improve, you may find yourself raising the standards you aim to achieve and being rewarded with greater enjoyment and impact.
The value of writing skills
Is it worth the effort? “The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now — at least — is to hone your communication skills — both written and verbal,” Warren Buffett, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s richest people, said in a video posted on LinkedIn in December 2018. “If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark — nothing happens. You can have all the brainpower in the world, but you have to be able to transmit it.”
Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management, put it this way: “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.”
Footnote on style
As a Canadian who has made the UK his home, I am accustomed to using Canadian and British spelling. Thus, I write “programme” instead of “program,” “colour” instead of “color,” etc. UK practice is to follow collective nouns, such as government or company, with plural verbs, for example: the government say they are issuing, the company provide information, etc. I have decided against that style, preferring the singular verb, thus: the government says it is issuing, the company provides information, and so forth.
I use the singular “they” following a noun where the gender is not specified. For example, “the writer finds they have many choices,” rather than “the writer finds he has many choices,” “the writer finds she has many choices,” or “the writer finds he or she has many choices.” (This is not just political correctness; the singular “they” has been around in English since the 13th century.)
Business writing is a term widely used to refer to written communications of a variety of organisations and institutions, as well as documents composed to manage private affairs. When I use the word “businesspeople,” I am not limiting the reference to professionals working for companies. Instead, I use “businesspeople” to denote anyone writing a business document, for their organisations or their own purposes.