Most business writing is bloated, boring, and pointless. It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s a grab-bag of mostly easy techniques that can help poor writers improve.

  • Avoid the passive voice. Of all the egregious sins of business writing, the passive voice is the most pervasive, and the most damaging. Sentences like, “A project will be chartered,” are common, and awful.Beyond their utility in inserting dullness, they compound the damage by preventing accountability: Everyone knows someone must charter the aforementioned project; use of the passive voice allows all readers to leave the doing of it to others.

    This characteristic of the passive voice is, undoubtedly, what makes it so popular.

  • Support your statements. Follow assertions with at least three supporting facts or arguments, because: (1) doing so provides a compelling reason to agree; (2) even for those who disagree, three supporting statements demonstrates that those who agree aren’t simply sheep; and (3) your ability to provide three separate reasons to accept the proposition demonstrates your clear-headedness.See?
  • Avoid etc. When following an assertion with three supporting facts or arguments, don’t make “etc.” one of them, because “etc.” doesn’t support anything. It’s equivalent to saying, “trust me” — the favored phrase of those who sell used cars. Every time a writer uses “etc.” to end a list, readers have every right to infer that he or she is intellectually lazy. If you find yourself tempted and can’t simply stop the comma-separated list with its last concrete entry, replace “etc.” with something more informative, like “… and other bits too numerous to mention.”
  • Differentiate “less” and “fewer.” Few among us really care if you say, “Less people use good grammar than bad,” instead of “Fewer people use good grammar than bad.” Nonetheless, getting this right makes you appear to be a clear thinker to just about every listener or reader, and with very little effort. The choice is easy: If the items are countable, use “fewer,” otherwise use “less.”It’s a minor point, (another is to never modify “unique” — if you do, you should have said “rare” in the first place) whose primary value is what it helps you say about yourself.
  • Use your vocabulary. “Thing” appears far too often in the average business report, and only because the writer was too lazy to think of a more specific noun. The same can be said of “do” as a verb, and “good” and “bad” as adjectives. Careful word choice gives you the opportunity to make careful distinctions. Take a new application for example: Designing it is different from either describing it or engineering it.So take the time to find the right word. It’s an easy thing to do.
  • Avoid superfluous modifiers. Whenever possible, choose nouns and verbs that require no adjective or adverb to clarify them. When you do use a modifier, ask yourself if it adds information, or just length.
  • Keep paragraphs short. It’s easy to get lost in a long paragraph. The blank space that separates paragraphs provides a visual marker that helps readers keep their place. The practical result: Readers only read the first few sentences of a long paragraph.
  • Order your thoughts. Streams of consciousness are self-indulgent. They give readers the impression that you’re either unable to think clearly, too lazy to organize your thoughts so as to make them clear to others, or simply indifferent as to whether anyone else should care what you think. They say, “Here are a bunch of random notions I’ve had. It’s up to you to make sense of them, although the only reason you should assume there’s sense to be made of them is your personal affection for me.”No matter what you’re trying to say, presenting your ideas in a logical order makes them credible. Failing to do so makes you, not incredible, but non-credible.
  • Organize your presentation. And use formatting to help readers follow the organization. Bullets keep separate, parallel thoughts separate and parallel. Headings and sub-headings help readers find what they’re looking for. Boldface and italics isolate the most important ideas.

Every communication you produce serves two purposes. The first is its overt reason for existence — to inform, persuade, or both. The second is to present yourself. This is more than exhibiting your talents in the best light. Each e-mail, memo or report is an opportunity to project whatever image you wish others to have of you. Creative, analytical, informed, imaginative, bold, careful … the way you write conveys an image.

Take control of it.