Follow business writing rules to write effective documents, such as emails, business plans, or papers. Be an effective communicator at work.
What business writing etiquette is
Business writing etiquette is the set of rules to appropriately and effectively write in the modern workplace. Such rules include:
- How to make your documents clearer.
- How to improve the professional quality of your documents.
- The business writing mistakes to avoid.
As an employee, you should respect business writing rules to write effective, clear, and professional documents.
As a manager or employer, promote business writing etiquette in your team to ensure effective communication between team members and within your company.
Business writing etiquette rules
1) Be clear and concise
Write according to the Flesch–Kincaid readability test principles. Readers have limited attention. Thus, business writing must be short and simple.
Write short sentences. Limit yourself to a few words. Write basic sentences: subject, verb, and object. Avoid complex structures. Break longer sentences into shorter ones.
Write short, simple words. Short words are easier to read and absorb. Do not use uncommon words. Always use the simplest and most familiar words.
Avoid any clutter words or phrases. Apply to every word or sentence the “so what?” test. Does the word or sentence add anything to the document? If you eliminate it, would the meaning change? Eliminate any word or sentence that does not pass the test.
2) Avoid adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs are subjective. Each reader may interpret their meaning differently. Avoid them.
Instead, use data. Switch any adjective or adverb with numbers. Example: engineers want to build a more robust data pipeline. What does “more robust” mean, exactly? What KPIs and numbers can they use instead?
Further, adjectives and adverbs hide what we do not know. If we are unable to change an adjective or adverb with numbers, it is because we have a gap in knowledge. Managers must identify such gaps and fill them.
3) Avoid weasel words
Weasel words sound good, but they are vague and mean nothing. Thus, it is best to avoid them.
Here are a few examples:
- “Better solution”. Better how? What is the solution, exactly?
- “Benefit the user”. Benefit how?
- “Bring clarity”. Clarity on what? What do we need to clarify? How will we get to clarity? What will we learn?
4) Synonyms are not allowed in business writing
Use the same word to describe the same thing. Over and over. Do not use synonyms. Synonyms generate confusion as readers can interpret them. A reader may think that you are referring to different things if you use different words.
For example, is there a difference between vendors and suppliers? Or between customers, clients, and users? Or revenue and turnover? If there is, explain it in the document. If there is not, pick one word and stick to it.
5) Limit jargon, acronyms, or buzzwords
Do not assume that your readers understand your jargon, acronyms, or buzzwords.
Explain technical terms and acronyms the first time they appear in any document. If a technical term requires a long explanation, include a link to a webpage or explain the term in an appendix.
For example, the first time you mention “KPIs” in a document, write the full form “Key performance indicators” and follow it with the acronym “(KPIs)” in brackets.
6) Write in an inclusive language
Make sure to adopt an inclusive language. Avoid the most common mistakes, such as gender discrimination. Follow the general workplace communication etiquette and business speaking etiquette, and avoid negative remarks or content.
7) Apply business writing formatting rules
Use formatting that is appropriate for business writing. Use standard, professional typefaces. Avoid elaborate or informal typefaces, such as the infamous comic sans.
Allow plenty of white space in the document. Break long paragraphs into shorter ones. Avoid paragraphs longer than 2 or 3 lines in work email.
Limit the use of bullet points to lists. Each bullet should not be longer than one line.
Use titles and bold format to highlight your major points. Readers must be able to understand the document by scanning titles and words in bold.
Business writing etiquette: the worst mistakes
The Rude Index identifies and ranks negative behaviors.
A high score (8-10) means that the behavior has the potential to trigger a conflict with others. A medium score (4-7) means that the behavior risks making you look inelegant and unsophisticated. More about the Rude Index and its methodology here.
Avoid the worst business writing etiquette mistakes.
- 9/10. Using a non-inclusive language.
- 8/10. Writing in an unstructured manner.
- 8/10. Writing wordy documents.
- 6/10. Using jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords.
- Flesch–Kincaid readability tests: wikipedia.org