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Better Business Writing: Tips from a Fiction Master

The idea that good writing is an inborn skill--or not--is probably the biggest roadblock to successful business communication. Maybe some great fiction writers are naturals, but most, like Hemingway, tell us that they never stop practicing the craft.

When it comes to business writing––everything from everyday emails to “big” documents like proposals and reports––practice also helps, I won’t kid you. But toss out the ideas that undermine your effectiveness and you’re already way ahead.

I find that many people assume they lack writing skill because they didn’t learn to write well in school. Join the club--few of us did. In my own case, I got great grades in English through high school, college and grad school but that didn’t mean I learned to write. At least, not “for the real world.”

Here’s what I eventually figured out.

1. Education focuses on thinking about things, not actually doing anything unconnected to academics. So those writing models don’t apply to the business world, which is oriented toward action--getting things done. Achieving tangible goals.

2. Business writing succeeds when it’s instantly clear to the reader rather than complicated and subtle. No one today takes the time to figure out what you mean and what you want.

3. Clear writing that uses short basic words rather than long impressive ones is the most persuasive, because people trust the concrete and real more than the abstract.

4. Most people can write this way if they review what they write and simplify it. Like me, you probably start with wordy, complicated, hard to understand language and must take the time to cut and fix it.

5. No idea is so complicated that it can’t be expressed in simple language. Hemingway had something interesting to say about that too.

William Faulkner––who wrote dense complex prose, the opposite of Hemingway’s trademark simplicity––commented critically that Hemingway “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

Hemingway responded: "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

That’s what you want to do, too, when you write a memo or proposal or website: Use short basic words, short sentences, an invisible style. To do this you must not only get past the passive academic style most of us were taught. You must also be brave enough to write differently from the awful business writing you see everywhere, every day.

Why so many people write in a manner they themselves hate reading is a mystery I haven’t cracked.

Good business writing is direct and action-oriented and a lot like conversation. Can you write like that? Of course. Will you get what you want more often? Absolutely.

In future posts I’ll show you how to use a simple process to write messages that achieve your goals whether in print or online. None of it is grammar—some of it is psychology, some is detective work, plus learning a resource of troubleshooting shortcuts. It’s spelled out in my books, naturally, which are described on this site. And it’s what I show people in my workshops.

By the way, it’s no accident that Hemingway’s approach works so well for business writing. He was grounded in journalism. And the reporter’s way of engaging readers and presenting information offers the best model for businesspeople.

I'll give Hemingway the last word. If you want to know how he would write your message, there’s an app! Check out Hemingwayapp.com. You can put in your words and see what happens when they’re simplified and restructured in the master’s style.

Have a good example of complex wordy business messages we can practice on together? Send them to me and I’ll share the challenge.

Or, want to debate whether simple clear writing produces over-simplified content? I'd love to hear your viewpoint and will share it.

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