How do you get better at business writing?
You knowâ€¦your new freelance client gives you a brief. You chat a few minutes about the project, ask questions, and get to work.
And then you have more questions, self doubt, maybe even writerâ€™s blockâ€¦
- How do you write faster?
- What software should you use?
- How do you submit error-free copy?
- Business formal or conversational style?
So many questions, your head starts to spin. Sound familiar?
How do you walk away from that client conversation with confidence you can handle their business writing project, deliver great content, and land more assignments?
The truth: It doesnâ€™t happen overnight.
Think about it like learning to ride a bike. At first, itâ€™s hard. Especially if youâ€™re trying to figure it out on your own.
But you can dramatically speed up the process.
How? By learning from someone who knows the ropes, like a mentor, successful freelancer, and business writing professor.
Want to get better at business writing? Check out these smart lessons to move up and earn more.
Meet business-writing professor Jack Appleman
Jack Appleman is a business writing instructor, professor and the author of 10 Steps to Successful Business Writing.
He’s created writing workshops, webinars and coaching for organizations like HBO, American Electric Power and Johnson & Johnson.
He’s even been featured in the Wall Street Journal in an article about workplace grammar. We recently interviewed Jack for the Freelance Writers Den podcast for some lessons on business writing.
Q1: Have you always been a business writing professor?
Jack:Â No. My first career was as a journalist. That lasted about five years. Then I got into public relations. And then I had a corporate job for an insurance brokerage firm.
One day my boss says:
“Jack, why don’t you help some of the salespeople with their writing, maybe prepare a short little session?”
That 45-minute session on how to write better, went so well I thought, “You know what, this is what I want to do. But before that, I never imagined myself as a presenter or business writing professor, but now I love it.
Q2: Whatâ€™s your biggest pet peeve about writing?
Jack: Not getting to the point soon enough. I know it sounds simple. But a lot of writers have a problem doing that. Sometimes there’s this instinctive urge to set things up with the background, and a lot of information.
But what readers want most of all is this:
Tell me the bottom line first because that will engage me in the rest of it.
Too many writers don’t get to the bottom lines soon enough
Q3: What are some things you recommend to help freelancers improve business writing?
Jack: Pick up a book. In my book, I explain how to be clear, concise, and more persuasive, and improve tone and grammar. There’s a lot of other good books and online resources to help you hone your skills.
The other part of this is just paying attention to how journalists write. I was trained as a journalist. Journalists are taught to get to the point as soon as possible.
These are the two key skills to learn to improve your writing.
Q4: Labor over writing a perfect first draft or crank it out fast?
Jack: I would suggest that people try to get that first draft done quickly. Even if it’s not perfect, try to get it done. Just psychologically, you have something done.
Q5: Whatâ€™s the process you recommend for editing your own work?
Jack: If you want to make a couple of quick edits right away after finishing a draft, that’s fine. But don’t try to finish your editing right then at the same time.
Let your text sit. And again, there are certain times where you have ridiculous deadlines, I understand that. But in most cases, we’re not asked to deliver something in 45 minutes or even an hour or two.
Don’t make this mistake: “Oh, this person asked me to do it. I want to get it to him or her as soon as possible.”
Sometimes we have so much to do, we want to get things off our desk right away. Resist that urge.
Instead, let your text sit and come back to it a couple of hours later, even the next morning. Then go through it as you were the reader. Start reading it, maybe even reading aloud, and put yourself in the shoes of the reader.
Q6: Should writers use specialized software to improve grammar, spelling, and style?
Jack:Â I think they’re all good. I think they’re all useful. I use spellchecker all the time before I’m ready to submit. I’ve tried Grammarly, the free version.Â It’s helpful as a backup. But I wouldn’t depend on it.
If you have a lot of trouble with proofreading,Â spelling, and punctuation, absolutely use one of those tools.
But you also have to use your own knowledge and instincts to go through what you write. Use a combination of these electronic tools and your own brain.
Q7: If youâ€™re used to academic writing, how do you learn to write for clients?
Jack: Write like you speak.Â Business writing should be conversational and so should marketing writing. Take a look at some of the top columnists, maybe even top bloggers. And look at the style that they use.
Sometimes people have this feeling that professional writing needs to be stiff. It doesn’t.
Informal does not mean unprofessional.
You do need to write like you speak. Why? Good business writing is conversational. This conversation comes up a lot when I’m coaching clients:
- Me:Â I don’t understand what you’re trying to say in this paragraph.
- Client: Well, Jack, I’m trying to say this, this and this.
- Me: OK. Well then write this, this and this.
It’s amazing how when people say their thoughts out loud, they’re so much clearer. We tend to speak much more clearly and concisely than we write.
In this day and age where everyone’s so impatient, you have to get to the point quickly. And you need to be conversational to engage readers People want things in small chunks.
Q8: Whatâ€™s one thing that really helps clients and freelancers create better content?
Jack:Â When you’re stuck, think about how you’d say something out loud.
Q9: What advice do you have for freelancers whose first language isnâ€™t English?
Jack:Â I work with a lot of people for whom English is not their first language.
Here’s what to tell them:
We have a lot of words that mean the same thing, like fantastic, terrific, great, stupendous. Just use the word you’re comfortable with. Nobody’s really judging you on your vocabulary. Readers want to understand what you’re saying so they can take the action.
Q10: How do you create more persuasive copy for clients?
Jack: Put yourself in the shoes of the reader and focus on their WIIFM…
What’s In It for Me?
Everybody knows they should do this, but most writers don’t do this well. They tend to look at things from their own perspectives.
Here’s an example. You’re writing a marketing email for a company that provides risk management solutions. Which approach is better?
- From your own perspective looks like this: “We have 20 years experience in data security. I can offer you a cost-effective risk management program.” You’re looking at it from your own perspective. You can’t do that. If you do, you’re going to decrease your chances of getting them interested.
- From the reader’s perspective: Turn the conversation around and say something like: “Your data is critical to your business and needs to be protected.” Look at things from the client’s perspective or the prospect’s perspective first. And you’ll create better content.
You have to think a little deeper. As the reader or prospect, is this going to move you? Is this going to impress you? Give everything you write this test.
For practice, take a look at some of the marketing emails you get and evaluate which ones do a better job at moving you than others.
Q11: How do you simplify your writing?
Jack: Before you write anything, get in the habit of taking a step back to think about the purpose of what you’re going to write. Many times we think we need to use sophisticated language, but generally you don’t. The more simple you can be, the more powerful you can be.
Improve business writing skills one assignment at time
Nobody wakes up knowing all the skills to be great at business writing. It’s a learning process. Land one assignment. Pay attention to the feedback you get. Study, learn, and do a little better on your next assignment. That’s how you build a freelance writing portfolio, move up, and earn more.
Questions about business writing as a freelancer? Let’s discuss in the comments.
Evan JensenÂ is the blog editor for Make a Living Writing. When heâ€™s not on a writing deadline or catching up on emails, heâ€™s training to run another 100-mile ultra-marathon.