Fit for purpose - the case for business writing
The value of writing more than twenty thousand work emails plus other soulless stuff
If I look back at my career and painfully add up the amount of work correspondence I’ve written I feel fairly certain that I’ve sent more than 20,000 work emails, averaging about four per day for the past 30 years (emails weren’t used at my company for the first 2 - 3 years of my career). Some of these emails were probably one sentence long, or even had a body containing a single, solitary word. Others may have been hundreds of words long. I’m sure there was the odd email that exceeded one thousand words. That volume of output doesn’t take into consideration the reports, presentations and other documents that I’ve written, edited and polished as a part of my day job.
I feel comfortable saying and thinking that I’m a good writer, mainly because I know:
how much work I’ve put into business writing over the years
the extra learning I’ve done to improve
the feedback and tips I’ve gathered from colleagues
I might not be a great writer, perhaps, but I’m certainly adept at certain ways of fitting words together.
But I should qualify my statement a bit: I’m a good business content writer and a good explainer/educator concerning certain types of information. There are different skills needed for writing fiction, poetry or even many types of non-fiction which I don’t use very often and I am much less confident in those skills. Could I write poetry or prose that would horrify you, titillate you or drive you to believe in ghosts? Well… maybe… but it would probably be really hard to do and it would take multiple drafts.
I feel that lots of business writing, even through emails, is actually a pretty good writing foundation. So to make the argument, if only to start an argument, here are a number of ways that I feel that business writing can be really good writing.
Know your audience
Business writing needs to be appropriate to the people who will be reading it. You’ve got to anticipate who will be reading your work, what background information they already have, and what you need them to know (and do). This type of skill (writing for a specific reader) is important for all kinds of writing.
Know your subject
Pure and simple, you need to know your subject matter, in detail, in order to effectively write about it. This depth of knowledge is needed for every type of writing. Without it, the reader will eventually detect your ignorance and then you’re sunk.
Write concisely and clearly
Clarity and conciseness in writing is so critical. Unless you’re dealing with readers who have the time and interest to parse your (hopefully) clever and artful prose - and you have the skill to build a sturdy castle of words filled with mystery and revelations - you need to be able to communicate with as few words as possible. You need to be open and precise about what you need to tell your reader.
Unless you’re a spy or a diplomat, perhaps, but that’s way out of my wheelhouse, man.
The ability to get your main point across to the reader
Knowledge of your audience and your subject, plus the ability to efficiently and effectively put your words together, are the foundational skills that allow you to achieve the goal of most writing: to make a point. In addition to entertaining, writing is used to educate, to convey a perspective and ultimately to attempt to persuade. If you fail to do this in business writing, at best you may create a mild misunderstanding. At worst, poor communication could lead to lots of lost time and money. So you’ve got to be able to write for results.
Getting and incorporating feedback, sometimes in real time
Business writing is almost guaranteed to bring out the editors and critics that surround you. If people don’t understand what you’ve written, you’ll find out about it sooner or later (hopefully sooner). If you’re lucky, the criticism will be creative. I’ve gotten my best feedback and writing tips from all of the business writing I’ve done over the years and I really treasure it.
So that’s my two words worth about the value of business writing. I’m curious to know what you think - does business writing have value that transcends the transaction? Or should it all be chucked into the Recycle Bin?
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