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Monday Mornings with Madison



Over the past two weeks, we’ve learned that good writing is an important skill for your personal success as well as for the survival of your company’s brand.  We also discovered that good writing is more a function of skill than talent, and that practice makes perfect.

We discussed some tips to help get you started writing including how to focus, achieve clarity and communicate the basics.  Here are five more tips for good business writing.

Top 10 Tips to Good Business Writing - continued

6.  Provide a road map.
Don't lose your reader.  If you want your readers to navigate the road of your writing and reach the proper destination, make the going easy for them. Use these devices to make your business documents more readable.  Remember it's not only what you say, but how you say it.
  • Paragraphs. Start a new paragraph as often as it is logically possible. What is easier to read: a newspaper or a law tome? Readers will muddle through long paragraphs and pages of unending text only when they need the information. Newspapers learned long ago that they have only seconds to grab the reader's attention and keep it; a story composed of several short paragraphs appears more accessible than one that resembles a scientific paper.
  • Bullets and lists. Bullets are typographical symbols (boxes, circles, asterisks, dashes) that draw attention to a particular piece of text. These are excellent for lists, which are wonderful signposts themselves. Any information that you can boil down into an easy-to-grasp listing boosts the readability of your writing. Bulleted lists work well for outlining the steps in a process. (Just as I am doing in this section!)
  • Subheads. Use mini-headlines to break up the copy in memos and letters and direct the reader through your writing.  (See how I broke up these points with underlined subheadings?)

7.  Write in an active voice.
If you were one of those people who yawned when your eighth grade English teacher began her lecture on active and passive voice, wake up. What you don't know about active and passive voice may be putting your readers to sleep or making them suspicious of you and your ideas or product. A sentence written in the active voice is straight-forward. It is honest and direct.  A sentence written in passive voice is shifty and convoluted.

Active: The committee will review all applications in early April.
Passive: In early April, all applications will be reviewed by the committee.

Passive writing is popular in business because it helps the writer avoid responsibility and remain anonymous.  However, customers are suspicious of writing that evades responsibility. Employees and managers distrust ideas that appear more vague than strong.

8.  Just Say It.  Prune unneeded words / phrases.
If your readers respond with "say what?" after finishing one of your memos or reports, you may be using businessese or doublespeak (high falutin’ language). Businessese is language we use not because it is clear or effective, but because we get into the habit of using it. It is lazy, self-important writing. Similarly, doublespeak is about trying to sound important.  Consider using precise, everyday substitutes

Businessese / Doublespeak                          Plain Words                           
Ascertain                                                             Find out                                     
Disseminate                                                      Send out
Utilize                                                                   Use
Strategize                                                            Plan
Optimum                                                             Best

9.  Stress benefits, not features.
Everything you write in business, from sales letters to budget plans, is intended to elicit a response. You want someone to do something. In the sales letter, you want a client to grant you an appointment so that you can demonstrate your latest product. In the budget proposal, you want the board of directors to fund a new project in your department.

To be successful in business and in writing, you must persuade. Persuasive writing stresses benefits instead of features. Your reader doesn't care how many bells and whistles your product has. The reader wants to know what your product is going to do for him.

Consider the cruising industry.  Cruise lines do not sell floating hotel rooms and rocking meals (the features). They sell lifestyle, fun and relaxation — how a person will feel during after the vacation (the benefits).

  • Feature:  This ship has eight levels, 1,250 rooms, as well as many amenities including 6 pools, 4 tennis courts, a movie theater, lounge, 5 restaurants, and stops at three ports.
  • Benefit:   A cruise vacation gives families a chance to spend time together and say "why not" to an almost unlimited number of activities and adventures, both onshore and onboard. Where else can you and your kids enjoy a water park on a private island or see a Broadway-style show in the middle of the ocean? Our Explorations! Shore excursions will turn every destination into an adventure and our innovative ships will provide entertainment the whole family can enjoy.  (This is an actual promotional paragraph taken from a high profile cruise line.)

10.  Read what you write.
After you have finished writing your memo or letter, read it aloud.  The best writers do this in their head but if you are reading this, you probably need to read it aloud.  Ask yourself if you would say to your reader what you are writing. Trust your ear. Wherever your writing is stuffy, wordy, muddy or impersonal, rewrite it.  Clarify.  Simplify.  Prune.  Use contractions to warm-up your message and take the starch out of stiff sentences. Delete words, sentences, and phrases that do not add to your meaning. Most of all, make it personal. Speak directly to the reader, human to human. Remember people don't do business with businesses; they do business with people.

Next week, in our last installment of our better business writing series, we will examine the most common writing mistakes today.  These are so common that you are bound to discover at least one mistake you’re making.  Don’t miss it!


"Good writing is like a clean windowpane." George Orwell

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