When people learn I write for a living, they are normally intrigued. They assume I’ve written a novel or had a glamorous career interviewing A-list celebrities. As soon as I mention that I specialise in business writing, their reaction often changes and, on occasion, their eyes glaze over. Some assume the subject will be dull, while others don’t really know what a business writer does.
For me, the topic of business has always been far more interesting than some people might initially imagine, and my career has allowed me to interview business leaders, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists.
That said, writing for a living isn’t always an easy gig. It’s therefore essential that writers, and especially independent business writers, have a pool of go-to resources that will come in handy if they’re stuck on a particular project.
Not only can these prove invaluable if you want to improve your writing style, the right resources can help eliminate errors and ensure your writing remains relevant to your target audience.
With this in mind, I’ve rounded up 31 tips and resources that have been useful in my career, as well as a few that have been recommended by other business writers.
What exactly is business writing?
Although the term “business writing” may initially seem daunting, the definition is, in fact, relatively straightforward.
Business writing is any kind of writing that has a professional purpose, and can include reports, proposals, emails and memos. Unlike some other forms of writing, business writing is often results-driven and there may be certain metrics by which you, or your superiors, judge its effectiveness. For example, a successful piece of business writing may result in increased sales or generate meetings with potential clients.
Business writing falls into four main categories. I’ll discuss each below.
Instructional business writing
The purpose of instructional business writing is to explain how readers can complete a particular task or accomplish a certain goal. Instructional copy could, for example, include blog posts such as “How to Complete Your Tax Return” or “How to Unclog a Blocked Drain.” This type of business writing often takes the form of a step-by-step guide and will not typically include opinion or personal commentary.
Informational business writing
Informational writing is designed to educate a reader on a particular topic. While a typical example of this would be a newspaper article, informational writing in a business context often relates to the reporting of details relevant to the business, whether that’s an annual report or recording the minutes from a meeting.
Persuasive business writing
With persuasive business communication, the goal is to bring your reader around to a particular way of thinking or even convince them to buy a certain product. Success in persuasive writing often relies on identifying your readers’ needs and explaining how your product or solution will satisfy those needs. Common examples include press releases, sales pitches and business plans.
Transactional business writing
This type of writing is most often associated with the day-to-day activities of conducting business, such as sending emails to colleagues and communicating with clients. While transactional writing often relates to routine tasks, it can also be used for delivering bad news, such as disciplining members of staff or terminating employment.
Six tips for effective business writing
Although no two pieces of business writing are identical, following the practices below has, in most cases, helped me achieve better results in my career and more favourable feedback from my editors. Some of these are also practices employed by Eleven content writers as we work to create top-quality work for our clients.
1. Know your audience
Although understanding your reader is crucial in any piece of writing, it is arguably even more important in business, as the success of your organisation could depend on your content.
Before you begin, ask yourself the following questions, and make sure your final piece takes the answers into account.
- Who is my typical reader?
- How long are they likely to spend reading this piece?
- What is their level of knowledge about this topic?
- Do they have any preconceptions or misgivings that I need to address?
2. Have a clear purpose
Understanding what your audience hopes to achieve from reading your work can help focus your mind and provide a framework for your writing. It may also be a good idea to make this purpose clear in the title of your work. For instance, we have titled this piece ‘31 Top Tips and Resources For UK Business Writers’ in order to clearly establish what we have to offer readers.
3. Be concise
Whereas people may be happy to spend all day reading a novel, they are less likely to devote as much time to a report or memo. It’s therefore vital that you are as concise as possible and avoid ‘fluff,’ or extraneous information, in your writing. Be ruthless: once you’ve finished writing, reread your work. If you are unsure whether something is relevant, you can probably cut it.
4. Make it scannable
In a professional environment, people are often pressed for time, which means they want content that they can digest quickly and easily.
Adding devices to break up the page, such as headings and bullet points, can assist your reader in identifying portions of text that are relevant to them. Likewise, using short paragraphs can make your text easier to digest. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules to writing concisely, keeping your paragraphs to three sentences or fewer can greatly increase scannability.
5. Avoid jargon
If you’re an expert in your field, it can be easy to assume that everyone else is as familiar with the language of your business as you are. However, this may not be the case. Remember that some of your readers may be new to your industry and be totally perplexed by the acronyms you use every day. Likewise, other readers could perceive the use of complex vocabulary as pompous or old-fashioned, which could alienate your potential customers.
6. Read your writing aloud
While your writing may seem to flow perfectly on paper or a computer screen, hearing it spoken aloud can help you see it in a fresh light. This technique may, for example, reveal portions of the text that don’t flow correctly or identify problems with your sentence structure.
As I’m not a fan of my own voice, I sometimes use the Read Aloud tool in Word or ask friends or family members to read my work back to me.
25 Resources for Business Writers
During my career, I’ve used a host of tools to help me with my writing. I’ve included some of my favourites below, as well as a couple of recommendations from successful business writers.
Grammarly is an app, web, or desktop extension designed to improve the quality of your writing. As well as performing grammar and spelling checks, it spots issues such as redundant words and passive phrasing. While the free version is adequate for my needs, you can also upgrade to its paid Premium version to access additional features such as a plagiarism checker.
2. Hemingway Editor
Named in honour of the famously unpretentious writing style of Ernest Hemingway, this free app helps to improve readability by identifying bad writing practices, such as unnecessarily complex language, hard-to-read sentences, and the use of the passive voice.
3. Stephen King’s On Writing
Moving from one celebrated American author to another, Stephen King’s bestseller, subtitled A Memoir of The Craft, reveals the habits that motivated the writer throughout his career. Taking the form of both memoir and textbook, On Writing offers practical and motivational tips for writers in any field, even business.
4. The Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Better Business Writing
Written by Bryan A Garner, this book focuses on skills you need to craft successful emails and business proposals. In one particularly valuable section, the guide provides tips for overcoming writers’ block. Although originally written for a US audience, the content is also relevant on the other side of the pond.
If you’re planning on starting your own company, this site provides free business plan templates from government-backed partners. You can also download free cash flow forecast templates and read sample plans from successful businesses.
As well as steering you towards potential new job vacancies, the professional networking tool allows you to follow topics relevant to your field and join conversations with other professionals. Doing so can help you identify topics that your peers are talking about and understand what motivates them.
7. The OED
The Oxford English Dictionary is widely regarded as the bible of the English language. With more than 600,000 entries, it contains examples collected over more than 1,000 years. Be aware, you’ll need a subscription to access the full OED, which comes with a price tag of £100.
8. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary
If you’re looking for a free dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s site contains approximately 470,000 entries. It also offers nifty features for all writers, such as words of the day, a thesaurus, and blog posts on the correct usage of grammar.
9. FT Essential Guide to Business Writing
With the subtitle How to Write to Engage, Persuade and Sell, this book from the Financial Times could prove useful if you’re interested in persuasive writing. It aims to demonstrate techniques for crafting copy that will bring colleagues, customers and board directors around to your point of view.
10. Automatic Readability Checker
When you paste a sample of your writing into this free tool, it will calculate the number of sentences, words, and syllables, according to popular readability formulas. While not all these formulas will be relevant for you, the tool should give you an idea of how easy your work is to read.
11. Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Lynne Truss’s groundbreaking book is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to ensure they’ve got the commas and semicolons in the right place. Subtitled The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, it not only takes a deep dive into the rules of punctuation, but explains why these rules are important.
12. Microsoft Word’s Editor
While you may feel that it goes without saying, it wouldn’t be right to leave Word’s spelling and grammar checker (called the editor in more recent versions) off our list. As well as checking your spelling and grammar, it will also analyse your documents for stylistic issues such as concision and formality. You can also customise the types of issues that Word checks for and add new terms and autocorrect entries to your personal dictionary.
13. Colorado State’s Writing Studio
Coming from the other side of the Atlantic and recommended to me by an expert business writer, this is a brilliant resource for all business writers and offers guides in the following areas.
- Composing documents and conducting research
- Writing and speaking for a purpose
- Writing in specific disciplines
- Conducting qualitative and quantitative research
14. The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP)
With a mission to ‘promote excellence in English language editing’, the CIEP hosts online courses and workshops, which cover skills that will be invaluable when editing business documents. Even if you don’t want to become a CIEP member, you can sign up for its email newsletter aimed at ‘everyone interested in writing clearly and accurately’.
15. The Guardian and Observer Style Guide
While primarily aimed at the group’s newspaper writers, this guide contains tips that are useful for anyone writing in a professional context. With its suggestions for alternative wording, it could be especially handy if you’re looking to vary your word choice.
16. Daily Writing Tips
If your business communication involves letter writing, you should check out this post from Daily Writing Tips, which covers all the key formatting points for this type of correspondence and explains the major style differences between UK and US letters.
17. The Plain English Campaign
The A to Z of alternative words is an essential read for anyone who wants to avoid the overuse of jargon in their writing—a trap that business writers often fall into. It provides alternatives to what it describes as ‘the pompous words and phrases that litter official writing’.
18. Persuasive Copywriting
A favourite of many professional writers, Andy Maslen’s book explores how you can use principles based on psychology and neuroscience to improve the quality of your writing. Although I haven’t yet read it myself, several other writers assure me it’s worthy of a place on our list.
19. The Economist’s style guide
Working on the principle ‘Clear writing is the key to clear thinking’, this much-loved writing manual provides guidance on the correct use of punctuation, as well as pointing out common errors and grammatical pitfalls.
If you’re writing for the web, getting your SEO right is crucial. Ahrefs offers tools designed to increase your content’s ranking in online searches and drive traffic to your website. Features include an SEO dashboard, keyword explorer, and rank tracker. Plans cost between £79 and £799 per month.
Although no respectable writer wants to be associated with spamming, you shouldn’t ignore email marketing as a business tool. Mailchimp allows you to send emails to new and repeat customers and map out personalised user journeys. While plans can be as much as £299 per month, a free version is also available.
22. The Up-Goer Five Text Editor
Writing with concision and clarity takes practice. This free tool challenges you to describe a complex concept using the 1,000 most common English words. While it might not work for all business concepts, the tool can certainly get you into the habit of slashing jargon from your writing.
23. Your competitors’ websites
When in business, it would be naive not to know what your competitors are doing in terms of their latest product releases. The same goes for business writing. If you’re writing a blog or annual report, it makes sense to check out what others in your field are offering.
24. Human proofreaders
While spellchecks can be vital for spotting errors, there is often no substitute for having a flesh-and-blood person read your work. A human proofreader can tell you if your writing just doesn’t sound right. A top tip: try asking someone who isn’t afraid to be brutally honest.
25. Eleven’s writing blog
Finally, it wouldn’t be right to finish without a (completely unbiased) mention of the Eleven writing blog, which contains articles on topics relevant for all writers, whether that’s understanding the difference between who and whom or the stylistic quirks that separate British and American English.
Although turning complex topics into easy-to-understand copy isn’t always easy, having the right resources to hand can certainly make the process simpler and more enjoyable. While you may try some of these resources and discover they’re not right for you, I expect you’ll be able to find at least a couple that will help you improve the quality of your writing.
Now, it’s time to get writing—and remember, writing is like any other skill: the more you practice, the better you’ll become.