by Stacy Wriston, M.A. | May 30, 2017
During my years of instructing Professional Writing and English Composition to business majors, I quickly identified a shared list of ‘pain-points’ that these students face. And although challenges with writing can been seen in all college majors, there are a few particular issues that haunt the business majors, from finance to marketing majors. You may ask, ‘why are business majors different’, and my answer is ‘The students aren’t different, but their writing objectives ARE different’. Writing a successful business proposal, client letter, or white paper poses particular challenges as these pieces must deliver key facts and goals with clarity and brevity. Thankfully, anyone can master strong writing skills through practice, determination, and guidance from their instructors.
To give you a head-start, check out these three ‘pain-points’ that business students face with their writing, along with some guidance to surmount these seemingly impossible challenges. I hope you find these insightful and effective!
- Ambiguous audience – I’m not sure how many times within a single course I use the word ‘audience’, but I’m sure my students walk away having dreams about this topic. If you don’t know your audience, then you can’t write a successful piece…period. Most business majors understand the importance of ‘audience’ within their marketing campaigns, but when they write content, all of that goes out the window. We focus so much on ‘what’ we want to say and the call-to-action that we forget ‘how’ to speak to our audience: what motivates them; what turns them off; what do they know already; what information is new to them; etc.
Remember: Clearly define your audience and then consider them throughout each step of the writing and editing process. This exercise will generate content that appeals specifically to your target audience, increasing the likelihood of a strong, positive response to your call-to-action.
- Boastful writing – In close relation to the above topic, there is an inherited risk of sounding boastful when writing about your company’s services or products. Students are aware of this danger but struggle to communicate the facts without sounding like it’s a sales-pitch to their audience. The secret is something called the ‘you’ attitude’ (as opposed to the ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘we’). The easiest way to approach this style of writing is to think of what you are communicating and then format it as a solution to your customers’ needs/wants/problems. Within this context, everything you discuss relates to how you are helping ‘them’ and avoids the dangers of sounding boastful or ‘salesy’.
Remember: Before you start writing, think about your topic as to how it relates to your defined audience. How will this topic make their life/business better; in other words, define the value proposition and only focus on those elements. This will quickly remove the ‘ego’ that can so quickly creep into a piece of content.
- Awkward phrases – Have you ever read something that doesn’t flow, yet can’t necessarily pinpoint the exact problem? Maybe the piece feels wordy or clumsy even if it is grammatically correct. When you encounter this phenomenon, you are probably reading something written in the passive voice. It only takes a handful of these sentences to make the whole piece feel vague, wordy, and sometimes even downright confusing. Passive voice is particularly a problem in business writing since your goal is to be as clear, direct, and cohesive as possible. None of these words would be used to describe the passive voice. And although it might be impossible to use the active voice in 100% of your sentences, a truly successful piece will exhibit the active voice in at least 90% of its composition.
Now, there are a few caveats regarding the passive voice, such as businesses dealing with instructional and governmental writing. Both of these remove the subject from the content to induce a sense of ‘omnipresence’ with their writing. For anyone dealing in these particular fields, the passive voice is a beast of burden. However, I would still suggest writing in the active voice whenever it is possible.
Remember: You should avoid the passive voice in most business writing as it will only complicate your message and muddy your call-to-action. Use the active voice in 90% of your composition and you will see an instant improvement in clarity and brevity. Since most of us tend to write as we speak, this process will most likely take place in your proofreading and editing exercises. The good news is that once you are aware of this tendency, just like with any bad writing habit, you quickly catch yourself even in the first draft and eventually eliminate the habit forever. Goodbye passive: hello active!
There are many other elements we could review, but if you proofread for these common issues, I think you will quickly see an improvement in your final drafts. These are quick and easy edits that really make a world of difference in your final message. Good luck and keep up the practice!