The Plain English Approach to Business Writing by Edward P. Bailey Jr.

This article was inspired by Edward P. Bailey Jr.'s The Plain English Approach to Business Writing . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.

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The Secrets of Business Writing

“The key to plain English is…Talk to your reader. Simply talk on paper. Write the way you talk.”

Before you even begin writing your paper, an outline can help you organize your thoughts. Don’t worry about revising your work along the way. First, let’s look at what will make your writing clear and accessible to others.

Write for the express purpose of communicating, this is the primary secret of business writing. Instead of showing off your command of the English language, use “plain English” in your work. In reality, the most intelligent of business people still do not wish to waste their time with wordy prose.

In order to write clearly, grammar aficionados will tell you to avoid the “Seven Nevers”:

  1. Never use “but” or “and” to start a sentence.
  2. Never turn to contractions.
  3. Never call the reader “you.”
  4. Never use “I” to refer to yourself.
  5. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
  6. Never divide an infinitive.
  7. Never write a paragraph with only one sentence.

However, professional writers ignore these seven rules. Write like you speak. This makes your work less impersonal, while also allowing you to use active voice more naturally.

Rather than using fancy words to give your work a boost, use punctuation. Just as hand gestures help a speaker put emphasis on particular points, punctuation, and not just periods and commas but also question marks, dashes, and semicolons, can make an otherwise monotonous read more enjoyable.

Though it may not appear in the first sentence, you should let your reader know your main point at the beginning of your work. The layout of your papers should come across as inviting—not foreboding. Keep your paragraphs brief and use bullet points and headings to break up the text. Balance your ideas among paragraphs and utilize the format best suited to your task. When writing a creative piece, you can afford to experiment with the format, while a business document works well with a more formal layout.

Avoid using the passive voice in your document at all costs! For example, a sentence in the passive voice looks like this: “My TV could be watched from the living room.” Rather than using the passive construction, use the active voice: “I could watch my TV from the living room. Unless necessary, avoid the passive voice. Such wordy sentences become monotonous to readers, when they make up an entire paper. You will find it difficult to move your readers to take actions, if your passive constructions lull them to sleep.

Avoid “be” verbs (be, am, is, are, were, being and been), and do not rely on past participles – verbs ending in “en” (taken) or “ed” (shopped).

When using abstract language—words or phrases that could have multiple meanings—clarify your writing with examples. You don’t want to confuse your readers.


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