Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

Two Minute Tips

Five ways to achieve clarity in your business writing

March 2, 2016

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Avoid making your readers work too hard to understand your work -- write using clear language.

Gobbledygook. Twaddle. Gibberish. All three words mean the same thing to me — unclear writing. And lack of clarity is one descriptor you don’t want your readers associating with your work. With over 70% of news consumers reading their news on mobile, the pressure on business writers to hook (and retain) their readers has never been greater. This blog contains five tips on making your business writing crystal clear.

Cap your sentences at 20 words

Occasionally, it’s okay for your sentences to exceed 20 words, but I recommend capping most at 20 words. Memory tests show the human mind can’t absorb more than eight consecutive letters at one time. Also, newsreaders consulting information via their phones typically linger no longer than five seconds per link. Without dumbing your work down, keep readers’ attention with digestible sentences.

Avoid jargon — use plain English

Clear business writing also means avoiding jargon and promotional language. The Plain Language Institute defines jargon: “a language of specialized terms used by a group or profession.” Anytime your sources insert industry specific terms, ask them to rephrase the sentence in lay person’s terms. One technique I’ve found helpful is asking experts to explain the same idea as they would to a nephew or child. This step may appear to dumb down your writing, but premium business publications, like the Economist, follow this rule. Item 2 on their suggested style guidelines is “never use a long word when a short one will do.”

Use specifics versus vague language

Corporate marketers adore vague and promotional language. Alas, these tendencies make for muddy and boring writing. If you quote these people verbatim, your reader will zone out. One trick I’ve found helpful is to ask a person to tell me specifically how their product/business/campaign differs from that of their competitors — what specifically will result from XYZ? What’s at stake? If the source can’t offer a clear answer, I find a different source. No story exists without details and specifics.

Also, craft your questions in a way to generate an in-depth response. So, if you’re reporting on growing student debt and ask a sophomore “is it tough to balance a full-time job around their studies,” they may simply answer “yes.” Ask the same person how they balance their full-time job around their studies, what strategies they have in place or to describe a typical day in their life, and you may elicit a more robust response instead.

Use active versus passive voice

Another tip to clarify your business writing is to insert active versus passive voice. Passive structures avoid directly stating the doer of the action. So, “flights were canceled today…” versus “American Airlines canceled flights today.” And, “The ball was hit by Billy,” versus “Billy hit the ball.” While passive voice isn’t incorrect, removing some of these structures shortens and clarifies your sentences. The Purdue Online Writing Lab offers excellent tips for eradicating passive structure from your business writing. You can also program Microsoft Word to detect passive sentences as part of your spelling and grammar check.

Employ design techniques

More frequently I’m noticing news organizations employ design techniques used in corporate business writing–specifically subheads and bulleted lists. The same techniques now appear in press releases and online business articles. The reason: these techniques work. By breaking up the content and providing more white space, your reader can skim and retain the core points. If using bullets in your business stories, follow some simple, quick rules: maintain consistent grammar and use only one or two lists per article. Less is more.

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