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Marketing / Business writing

Business document writing: Choose the right words

A common error people make when writing business documents is that they use language familiar to them and their industry rather than language that’s familiar to their reader.

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Do you know the meaning of the words ersatz or achiote? I discovered these words recently when playing the game Words with Friends. Ersatz means ‘inferior in quality’ and achiote is a shrub from the tropical region of the Americas. I would never use these words in everyday language yet they earned me valuable points in the game.

Sometimes the opposite goes for writing effective business documents – using certain words might make you sound at the top of your game when talking with industry professionals, but when dealing with clients, everyday vernacular earns more points.

Get the message across

If your reader is spending too much time thinking about the meaning of certain words in your business document writing, then the meaning of the document will be lost. Your reader will become frustrated, they likely won’t read the entire document and the central message will go over their head.

"If your reader is spending too much time thinking about the meaning of certain words in your business document, then the meaning of the document will be lost."

An easy-to-understand document ensures your message gets across in the most direct way, assisting the reader in taking in the key messages and assisting you in achieving your desired outcome.

Want more articles like this? Check out the business writing section.

Consider your reader

Any business document should always be about meeting the needs of the reader.

No matter the type of business document writing you are doing – a proposal, report or email – always ask yourself: Can the document be written using clear language that is easily understood?

In cases where uncommon words need to be used, accompany them with an explanation of their meaning in brackets. This ensures the reader won’t become fixated on deciphering their meaning and will help prevent the message of your document from being lost or forgotten. Also, avoid using complex business jargon. “Leveraging a best practice to action the core competencies of the business” sounds mystifying, but that is all a sentence like this will do – mystify.

How to choose the most appropriate words

You’ll know the type of language that you should use when writing business documents by considering who will be reading your document. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Will the reader expect industry-specific language?
  • What is important to the reader?
  • Will more than one person read the document?

An easy-to-use rule that can assist you is the KISS rule – Keep It Simple Stupid, or Keep It Short and Simple.

When reviewing your document, check if your choice of words adds meaning and clarity to your message or if they have the potential to confuse the reader. If you have used uncommon or difficult words, try to replace them with simpler ones with a clearer meaning. If there are any long and complicated sentences, try breaking them up into two shorter, clearer ones.

When writing your next document, consider the words that you’re using and how appropriate they are for both the purpose of the document and the needs of the reader.

In short, if you don’t want to write an ersatz document, then don’t use words as rare as an achiote in Australia.

What experiences have you had with unusual words in business document writing?

Maria Pantalone

works with individuals and teams in developing their business communication skills. Her company, Infinite Growth, provides training in presentation skills, business writing and leadership development. Armed with these skills, there is nothing a business person cannot achieve.

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