Plain English: 5 Top Tips for Business Writing

Plain English

Good writing skills using Plain English are a core business skill. People that write well at work are good communicators. On the whole, good writers have credibility at work, they get promoted and they get salary increases.

My Plain English 1 day writing course is probably the most popular of any of the courses I deliver, reflecting the importance of good writing in both the public and private sector.

So here are my top 5 tips to improve your writing at work using Plain English:

1. Design Before You Start

Make sure you’re writing to a plan. Design your document before you start, don’t just start using the keyboard. You should know the content of each paragraph before starting the document. I use keywords for each paragraph. You can change the plan once you’ve started; that’s what happens with plans, but at least have a starting point.

2. Make the Document Easy to Scan

People don’t read any more; everyone scans. It’s the result of everyone being overloaded with emails and information. For your writing to be read, it has to be easily scanned.

Front-load your writing so that the main point is in the first 2 lines. A carefully argued case with the conclusions at the end won’t get read. Give them the conclusions at the start and then substantiate these.

To make the document easy to scan, use tables and lists. Use sub-headings so readers can focus on what are the critical areas for them.

3. Be Concise

Research shows that this is the single greatest factor that improves readability. Have as your motto, ‘Short words, short sentences and short paragraphs are best.’

It’s so easy to reduce your word count simply be deleting the unnecessary. Most people can reduce the number of words contained in a document, or email, by around one-third.

Sentence lengths should be no more than 17/18 words long. Avoid great, long, rambling sentences to improve readability. Try and limit sentences to one idea. Don’t cover multiple ideas in the same sentence.

4. Check Readability

When you’ve completed your document check readability. Get a Flesch Reading Ease score for your document. This is one statistic that rarely lies. It tells you how easy it is to understand your writing.

You should be getting Reading Ease scores of about 60 for business writing. If your score is way below this, you need to revise your document to get a higher score.

5. Don’t Make Silly Errors

Spelling and grammar checkers aren’t perfect. The only way to prevent silly errors in your writing is to review what you’ve written. Read through it carefully, with focus and concentration. I always review something I’ve written twice. If it’s a particularly important document, I get a colleague to proof-read it. We all get too close to our own writing to spot our own mistakes.

The problem with making silly mistakes with grammar and punctuation is that they affect your credibility. Don’t believe the idea that correct grammar doesn’t matter anymore. It matters hugely. So those are my top tips for good business writing. They apply whether you just do emails, or whether you have to write detailed reports for senior management.

If you need to update your skills and get some coaching:

Plain English: 5 Top Tips for Business Writing
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