How can business professionals improve their business writing skills? You can find writing courses by the dozens, but they tend to be either too general or solely focused on fiction.
That’s not very helpful for the professional who writes as part of their job.
Writing in a business setting has specific goals, such as:
- Assessing how a project is coming along or how well a product is doing
- Persuading customers to buy something
- Instructing users on how to utilize custom software
- Educating an audience on something related to the industry
Any skills improvement must also be specific. You might want lessons on things like:
- Clarity and precision
- Report structures
- Instructional copy
- Marketing copy
But who has time to take a six-week course or complete a multi-course certificate? Most of us struggle to find an hour or two a month for professional development.
With a little creativity and some upfront planning, you can create a program for yourself that fits your needs and your busy schedule. In this Quick Guide, I’ll look at the three steps to improving your writing.
1. Make Your Training Bite-Sized
I can’t count the number of training books I’ve purchased and never opened. I’m also good at signing up for a webinar or purchasing a recording and never logging in. But I also can’t count the number of articles and five-minute videos I consume in a day.
To make your writing lessons bite-sized, look for training that breaks down into small pieces. Committing to one short video or book chapter a week can be a great way to incorporate ongoing development.
Or try blocking out an hour a week. Some online courses break three or four hours of lecture time into 5- to 10-minute lessons, giving you more control over how much learning you do at once.
Look for training that focuses on the kind of writing you want to improve, increasing the possibility that all the lessons will be valuable to you. Let’s look at a few common types of writing and training resources.
General Business Writing
Business writing is any writing you’ll use in a business setting, including proposals, reports, memos, emails, and client notices. If you’re writing a variety of pieces, business writing lessons can help you with business writing style. (If you’re not sure what a writing style is, check out my “Using Science to Define the Art of Writing Style.”)
For books, I’m fond of those by Roy Peter Clark. Clark is great at breaking down topics into easily digestible parts. In particular, check out How to Write Short and The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.
When your writing is intended to educate, inform, or entertain your audience, that’s content writing. Your audience is at the beginning of the sales funnel, identifying their problem and the possible solutions. Content writing can include formats like white papers, reports, blogs and articles, and ebooks.
And definitely get your hands on Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley. Handley is encouraging and her guidance is focused on getting you writing.
For deeper dives into writing long form, check out Jack Hart’s Storycraft, which covers how to write narrative nonfiction, and Wordcraft, which covers how to write clearly. Both require some time to read, but they’re well worth the effort.
As your prospects get closer to making a purchase, you want to be in persuasive mode. Copywriting is promotional and sales copy. This includes emails, brochures, ads, press releases, and product web pages, among other formats.
In addition to generalized copywriting courses, look for specific areas you can work on, such as headlines, storytelling, and common mistakes.
Tamsen Webster’s Find Your Red Thread will help you share your ideas with your audience to persuade them to follow your advice, while Roger Shapiro’s Write Right: 26 Tips to Improve Your Writing. Dramatically. will give you short lessons to apply to your writing.
Copyblogger offers all kinds of writing advice. I’m particularly fond of “The 1-2-3-4 Formula for Persuasive Copy” for learning the basics of persuasive writing.
And Purdue University’s OWL has a great section on how to write white papers.
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Writing is a craft. The only way to improve is to do it. But finding the time to write during a busy workday? That’s a challenge. Here are a few suggestions for getting yourself writing.
Block out the time. If you’re beholden to your work calendar, create times in your schedule when you’re unavailable to others. Look for times when you’re less in demand or more likely to have a quiet workspace. Consider using an app to block distracting websites.
Create writing sprints. While spending an hour or two writing can help you go deep into a topic, when you’re practicing, you can benefit as much from 15–20 minutes of writing. You’ve got to do these more frequently, however. Try making the first 20 minutes of your workday your practice writing time.
Partner with a colleague. We all know that it’s one thing to say you’ll do something and another to follow through. Get yourself an accountability partner. Share your goal with your partner, and direct them in how you’d like to be reminded or encouraged. Some people like the tough-love approach, while others appreciate a gentler touch. Offer to check in with them on something they want to accomplish as well.
Don’t start from scratch. Use older pieces of writing to practice skills you’re learning. Gather rough drafts and published pieces to work on. Practice one skill at a time on one or more of your documents. When you’ve practiced several skills, practice all them on another document.
3. Get Feedback and Apply It
Practice is great, but how do you know if you’re making progress? A key part of improving your writing is getting honest, constructive feedback. As with training, you want to work with someone who specializes in your type of writing. A fiction writing coach won’t be much help here.
Create an internal critique group. Consider combining efforts with other employees who want to improve their writing. In a writing critique group, you’ll share your writing with each other, giving and receiving feedback. Let others know what skills you’re working on and what specifically you want feedback for. For example, if you’re working on the length of your sentences, ask for feedback on that. The better someone knows what you want them to critique, the better the feedback will be. Make it a weekly or biweekly check-in to keep everyone motivated.
Join an external critique group. Admittedly, this can be a challenge for the business writer, especially if you’re using confidential copy. Check The Freelance Content Marketing Writer on Facebook, Reddit’s /r/WritersGroup, or Shut Up & Write for groups.
Hire help. For one-on-one help, hire a writing coach or a professional critiquing service. Engage someone with deep skills in and knowledge of your type of writing. Make them aware of your goals and struggles so that their feedback is focused and something you can work on. Familiarity with your industry can be a big plus for avoiding misunderstandings related to content.
Not One and Done
Improving your writing skills can seem like a chore, largely because it is. You must practice to improve. There’s no secret formula, no magical pen, no special software that will make you write better.
What will make you a better writer is sitting your butt in a chair (BIC) and writing. Tackle a short lesson and immediately apply it. Then tackle another and another. Find your rhythm and keep going.
Build the habit, one step at a time, and after a while you’ll notice improvement.