One common concern is to simply address the question, what is good writing? As we progress through our study of written business communication, we’ll try to answer it. But recognize that while the question may be simple, the answer is complex. Edward P. Bailey (2008) offered several key points to remember.
Good business writing
· follows the rules,
· is easy to read, and
· attracts the reader.
Let’s examine these qualities in more depth.
Bailey’s first point is one that generates a fair amount of debate. What are the rules? Do “the rules” depend on audience expectations or industry standards, what your English teacher taught you, or are they reflected in the amazing writing of authors you might point to as positive examples? The answer is “all of the above,” with a point of clarification. You may find it necessary to balance audience expectations with industry standards for a document and may need to find a balance or compromise. Bailey (2008) pointed to common sense as one basic criterion of good writing, but common sense is a product of experience. When searching for balance, reader understanding is the deciding factor. The correct use of a semicolon may not be what is needed to make a sentence work. Your reading audience should carry extra attention in everything you write because, without them, you won’t have many more writing assignments.
When we say that good writing follows the rules, we don’t mean that a writer cannot be creative. Just as an art student needs to know how to draw a scene in correct perspective before he or she can “break the rules” by “bending” perspective, a writer needs to know the rules of language. Being well versed in how to use words correctly, form sentences with proper grammar, and build logical paragraphs are skills the writer can use no matter what the assignment. Even though some business settings may call for conservative writing, there are other areas where creativity is not only allowed but also mandated. Imagine working for an advertising agency or a software development firm; in such situations success comes from expressing new, untried ideas. By following the rules of language and correct writing, a writer can express those creative ideas in a form that comes through clearly and promotes understanding.
Similarly, writing that is easy to read is not the same as “dumbed down” or simplistic writing. What is easy to read? For a young audience, you may need to use straightforward, simple terms, but to ignore their use of the language is to create an artificial and unnecessary barrier. An example referring to Miley Cyrus may work with one reading audience and fall flat with another. Profession-specific terms can serve a valuable purpose as we write about precise concepts. Not everyone will understand all the terms in a profession, but if your audience is largely literate in the terms of the field, using industry terms will help you establish a relationship with your readers.
The truly excellent writer is one who can explain complex ideas in a way that the reader can understand. Sometimes ease of reading can come from the writer’s choice of a brilliant illustrative example to get a point across. In other situations, it can be the writer’s incorporation of definitions into the text so that the meaning of unfamiliar words is clear. It may also be a matter of choosing dynamic, specific verbs that make it clear what is happening and who is carrying out the action.
Bailey’s third point concerns the interest of the reader. Will they want to read it? This question should guide much of what you write. We increasingly gain information from our environment through visual, auditory, and multimedia channels, from YouTube to streaming audio, and to watching the news online. Some argue that this has led to a decreased attention span for reading, meaning that writers need to appeal to readers with short, punchy sentences and catchy phrases. However, there are still plenty of people who love to immerse themselves in reading an interesting article, proposal, or marketing piece.
Perhaps the most universally useful strategy in capturing your reader’s attention is to state how your writing can meet the reader’s needs. If your document provides information to answer a question, solve a problem, or explain how to increase profits or cut costs, you may want to state this in the beginning. By opening with a “what’s in it for me” strategy, you give your audience a reason to be interested in what you’ve written.
More Qualities of Good Writing
To the above list from Bailey, let’s add some additional qualities that define good writing. Good writing
· meets the reader’s expectations,
· is clear and concise, and
· is efficient and effective.
To meet the reader’s expectations, the writer needs to understand who the intended reader is. In some business situations, you are writing just to one person: your boss, a coworker in another department, or an individual customer or vendor. If you know the person well, it may be as easy for you to write to him or her as it is to write a note to your parent or roommate. If you don’t know the person, you can at least make some reasonable assumptions about his or her expectations, based on the position he or she holds and its relation to your job.
In other situations, you may be writing a document to be read by a group or team, an entire department, or even a large number of total strangers. How can you anticipate their expectations and tailor your writing accordingly? Naturally, you want to learn as much as you can about your likely audience. How much you can learn and what kinds of information will vary with the situation. If you are writing website content, for example, you may never meet the people who will visit the site, but you can predict why they would be drawn to the site and what they would expect to read there. Beyond learning about your audience, your clear understanding of the writing assignment and its purpose will help you to meet reader expectations.
Our addition of the fifth point concerning clear and concise writing reflects the increasing tendency in business writing to eliminate error. Errors can include those associated with production, from writing to editing, and reader response. Your twin goals of clear and concise writing point to a central goal across communication: fidelity. This concept involves our goal of accurately communicating all the intended information with a minimum of signal or message breakdown or misinterpretation. Designing your documents, including writing and presentation, to reduce message breakdown is an important part of effective business communication.
This leads our discussion to efficiency. There are only 24 hours in a day, and we are increasingly asked to do more with less, with shorter deadlines almost guaranteed. As a writer, how do you meet ever-increasing expectations? Each writing assignment requires a clear understanding of the goals and desired results, and when either of these two aspects is unclear, the efficiency of your writing can be compromised. Rewrites require time that you may not have, but will have to make if the assignment was not done correctly the first time.
As we have discussed previously, making a habit of reading similar documents prior to beginning your process of writing can help establish a mental template of your desired product. If you can see in your mind’s eye what you want to write, and have the perspective of similar documents combined with audience’s needs, you can write more efficiently. Your written documents are products and will be required on a schedule that impacts your coworkers and business. Your ability to produce effective documents efficiently is a skill set that will contribute to your success.
Our sixth point reinforces this idea with an emphasis on effectiveness. What is effective writing? It is writing that succeeds in accomplishing its purpose. Understanding the purpose, goals, and desired results of your writing assignment will help you achieve this success. Your employer may want an introductory sales letter to result in an increase in sales leads, or potential contacts for follow-up leading to sales. Your audience may not see the document from that perspective, but will instead read with the mindset of, “How does this help me solve X problem?” If you meet both goals, your writing is approaching effectiveness. Here, effectiveness is qualified with the word “approaching” to point out that writing is both a process and a product, and your writing will continually require effort and attention to revision and improvement.
Rhetorical Elements and Cognate Strategies
Another approach to defining good writing is to look at how it fulfills the goals of two well-known systems in communication. One of these systems comprises the three classical elements of rhetoric, or the art of presenting an argument. These elements are logos (logic), ethos (ethics and credibility), and pathos(emotional appeal), first proposed by the ancient Greek teacher Aristotle. Although rhetoric is often applied to oral communication, especially public speaking, it is also fundamental to good writing.
A second set of goals involves what are called cognate strategies, or ways of promoting understanding, developed in recent decades by Kostelnick and Rogers (1998). Like rhetorical elements, cognate strategies can be applied to public speaking, but they are also useful in developing good writing. “Rhetorical Elements and Cognate Strategies,” below, describes these goals, their purposes, and examples of how they may be carried out in business writing.
|Rhetorical Elements and Cognate Strategies|
|Aristotle’s Rhetorical Elements||Cognate Strategies||Focus||Example in Business Writing|
|Logos||Clarity||Clear understanding||An announcement will be made to the company later in the week, but I wanted to tell you personally that as of the first of next month, I will be leaving my position to accept a three-year assignment in our Singapore office. As soon as further details about the management of your account are available, I will share them with you.|
|Conciseness||Key points||In tomorrow’s conference call, Sean wants to introduce the new team members, outline the schedule and budget for the project, and clarify each person’s responsibilities in meeting our goals.|
|Arrangement||Order, hierarchy, placement||Our department has matrix structure. We have three product development groups, one for each category of product. We also have a manufacturing group, a finance group, and a sales group; different group members are assigned to each of the three product categories. Within the matrix, our structure is flat, meaning that we have no group leaders. Everyone reports to Beth, the department manager.|
|Ethos||Credibility||Character, trust||Having known and worked with Jesse for more than five years, I can highly recommend him to take my place as your advisor. In addition to having superb qualifications, Jesse is known for his dedication, honesty, and caring attitude. He will always go the extra mile for his clients.|
|Expectation||Norms and anticipated outcomes||As is typical in our industry, we ship all merchandise FOB our warehouse. Prices are exclusive of any federal, state, or local taxes. Payment terms are net 30 days from date of invoice.|
|Reference||Sources and frames of reference||According to an article in Business Week dated October 15, 2009, Doosan is one of the largest business conglomerates in South Korea.|
|Pathos||Tone||Expression||I really don’t have words to express how grateful I am for all the support you’ve extended to me and my family in this hour of need. You guys are the best.|
|Emphasis||Relevance||It was unconscionable for a member of our organization to shout an interruption while the president was speaking. What needs to happen now—and let me be clear about this—is an immediate apology.|
|Engagement||Relationship||Faithful soldiers pledge never to leave a fallen comrade on the battlefield.|
Good writing is characterized by correctness, ease of reading, and attractiveness; it also meets reader expectations and is clear, concise, efficient, and effective. Rhetorical elements (logos, ethos, and pathos) and cognate strategies (clarity, conciseness, arrangement, credibility, expectation, reference, tone, emphasis, and engagement) are goals that are achieved in good business writing.
Bailey, E. (2008). Writing and speaking. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Kostelnick, C., & Roberts, D. (1998). Designing visual language: Strategies for professional communicators(p. 14). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Licenses and Attributions
4.3 Good Writing from Business Communication for Success was adapted by Saylor Academy and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensor.
We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.
Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.