The Art of Business Writing

March 6, 2014
by Jenny Baranick

Having been traumatized by my high school sweetheart’s obsession with supermodel Cindy Crawford, I can’t tell you how gratifying it was when I recently came across this quote from Ms. Crawford, herself: “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.” In fact, most flawless finished products we’ve encountered—be it a model’s magazine cover photo, a book on the New York Times bestsellers list, or even one of Steve Jobs’ brilliant presentations—didn’t wake up looking like that. A lot of time, energy and revision went into making the product appear perfect. This is also the case with business writing. Business plans that attract investors, cover letters that land interviews, and website copy that sells products must be revised (often over and over and over again) for clarity, conciseness and creativity.

A lot of us get discouraged about our writing because it doesn’t flow out of our heads onto paper like it seems to for writers in the movies. However, actual writers revise and revise and revise—and revise.  In fact, Hemingway rewrote the last page of his novel Farewell to Arms 39 times! You see, your first draft should not be brilliant; it shouldn’t even be that good.  Your first draft should simply get your thoughts out of your head and onto the page—lots of them. Think of your first draft as the untouched slab of marble Michelangelo started with. Then, like Michelangelo did with that slab to create the David, we must whittle our writing away little by little. First, we choose the important points and get rid of the rest; next, we organize those points for clarity; then, we prune unnecessary words and phrases so the writing is strong and confident; and then at the very end we look for opportunities to use creative language and images to differentiate our writing from the competitions’.

That sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Is it really that important? I mean, it’s not like you’re writing a novel or anything. Of course it is. Your business writing is often your first impression, and if you’re not careful, your only impression. For example, if your business plan is written clearly, concisely, and creatively, chances are that not only will you have a better chance that it actually gets read; the readers might choose to invest because they might infer that you do business with clarity, efficiency and creativity. Or how about those of you who work in technical fields? There’s a skill involved in communicating complex ideas to the lay person. Stephen Hawking sold millions of book by doing just that!

Except for maybe Mozart—or at least the Mozart I saw in the movie—none of us have the ability to create immediate masterpieces. Masterpieces take time to achieve— even cover letters, press releases and business plans. But you should take the time to craft them because your success might depend on them—and if I’ve learned anything from supermodels over the years, it’s this: you’re worth it!

Jenny Baranick teaches English Composition and Critical Thinking at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. She is also author of the grammar guide Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares and has a grammar blog at Jenny will teach business writing workshop “Effective Business Writing: Clear, Concise, Creative” on May 15 from 8am-12pm at the Rady school? More info