← Archive // RSS

Writing for Others

by Nathan Pilkenton

July 2023

Summary: I've written a short guide to more effective business writing, with a focus on how keeping the reader in mind can help you better communicate your ideas. Read on below for the introduction, which gives a brief overview of my perspective and the book's content. You can also download the entire (short) book for free as an epub or PDF.

Writing skills are critical in today’s businesses

Writing is central to the modern workplace. In a typical month as a management consultant, I sent about 500 emails, received 1,500 more, and worked on more than 200 draft versions of PowerPoint documents. And while not everyone in an office environment needs to know how to code or analyze data, almost all will be asked at some point to draft a presentation or send an email to a large audience.

Business writing has unique challenges

Yet many businesspeople have no training in how to write for business. In fact, most probably rely on their experience writing essays in high school or college — which can actually make their business writing less effective.

For example, most high school and college papers have a minimum length requirement, which means students stretch out their points into long, winding paragraphs. These assignments also have strict requirements that force students to format every document in the same way, and prohibit the use of bullet points or bold type.

Habits like these, formed through years of repetition, can easily carry forward into the workplace. But they are counterproductive to good business writing, which is entirely different from writing an essay for school.

I was inspired to write this book to pass along some of what I’ve learned and some of the mistakes I’ve made myself or seen others make. I hope it will help you think more critically about the way you write, and ultimately become a more effective business writer.

Empathy for the reader is what matters

If there is only one thing you take away from this book, it should be this: good business writing is written with empathy for the reader. In other words, you should be writing with others in mind, not just writing whatever is easiest for you. (I’ve put those points in bold because they are so important.)

It’s easy to write lazily by typing whatever comes to mind first and sending it off without a second look. But if you're not thinking about the reader, whatever you’ve written may not make as much sense to them as it does to you. At best, this might make it harder for readers to grasp your point; at worst, it can lead to confusion and miscommunication.

Have you ever read a long, confusing email, and at the end realized you had no idea what it was really saying? I have. Going back to the top of the page to read through again is a sinking feeling, to say nothing of the time it wastes.

The goal when writing should be to make sure your readers never get confused or feel like they are wasting time. Instead, we should strive to make the reader’s job as easy as possible.

Three choices to add empathy to your writing

This book will detail three choices you can make to write more effectively by shifting your focus to the reader. They are:

  1. Be concise: be clear, without using more words than you need
  2. Use formatting: visually highlight important points
  3. Prioritize what matters: put your important messages near the beginning

These three choices can be found in the best practices used in technical writing, where clarity in communication is the most important goal. They’re also present in the training used in top management consultancies, and in books like The Pyramid Principle, which outlines a specific method for communicating effectively in the workplace.

The three choices above can be applied across all different kinds of writing. The following sections will give examples of how to use these rules in emails and presentations, the most common forms of writing in most businesses. But these choices could be applied to other things, too: technical documentation, memos, brochures, white papers, and more.

In fact, I’ve tried to make this book itself an example of how to apply these three choices. As you read, you may notice that some things about this book — like its short length and larger font size — echo the advice given within.

Good writing is a choice

I have referred to the three items above as “choices” for a reason. Clear, effective writing is a choice we have to make. Sometimes, it might not feel necessary, and indeed sometimes it probably isn’t. (When you send a text do your friend, do you need to choose your words as carefully as when you are sending an email to your boss?)

The goal of this book is to demonstrate the power of writing with the reader in mind, and to offer some tools that can help you put this into practice. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide when and how to apply these methods.

Use this book however you like

The next sections of this book will go into detail on each of the three choices, discussing specific strategies for applying each of them. Each strategy also has examples of how it can be used effectively when writing both emails and presentations.

Feel free to focus only on the examples if you like, or you can read through all of the discussion about each choice. You could skip around, or only read the sections you’re interested in. In general, use the material here however it’s most convenient for you. Because above all, the book is meant to help you. 

Download the full book

The text above was the introduction to Writing for Others, a short guide to more effective business writing. If you're interested in reading the whole book, please see here for a free epub or PDF.

← Archive // RSS