Write It So They’ll Read It! A Guide to Effective Business Writing

Poor writing costs American companies a staggering $400 billion each year. Find out how to write effectively.

Write It So They’ll Read It! A Guide to Effective Business Writing

Poor business writing isn’t just annoying; it’s costly. Josh Bernoff wrote a piece for The Daily Beast titled, “Bad Writing Costs Businesses Billions.” The article grabs with an amazing statistic: Poor writing is costing American companies a staggering $400 billion each year. The cost is in lower productivity, lost sales, damaged brands, weakened credibility, mangled ideas, unclear instructions, ignored press releases, confusing procedures and regulations, and lawsuits.

Do you realize that your writing can make or break your career? It can determine whether or not you’re viewed as a competent person who should be taken seriously. Poor communications can undermine your professional image — perhaps costing you a promotion or an important customer. That doesn’t have to be the case. If you devote the proper time to planning, you’ll write more coherent and targeted messages, streamline the writing process, and spend less time rewriting and revising. And you’ll get the results you expect.

The following Jump Start Planning Sheet will fire up any document you write. (A document is anything from an email to a proposal, grant request, report, brochure, manual, spec sheet, website, and more.) Participants who attend my business writing workshops continue to tell me that when they use the Jump Start Planning Sheet to plan their everyday writing tasks, they cut their writing time by 30 – 50 percent, and they get the results they expect. Try it and see how well it works for you.

Note: I’m using the plural “readers” throughout this article rather than getting into the weeds of feminine or masculine pronouns.

Jump Start Planning Sheet 
1. Who’s my primary reader? Do I have multiple readers?
2. What does my reader need to know about the topic?
3. What’s in it for my reader?
4. Does my writing need a special angle, subtlety, or point of view?
5. What’s my reader’s attitude toward the topic?
6. My purpose is to _________ so my readers will ___________.
Key Issue 
7. What’s the one key point I want my reader to remember?
8. What questions my readers will need answered?

Good ideas demand good writing. No matter what level writer you are, it’s critical to plan. You must understand your readers, purpose, key issue, and questions to become a more effective communicator for writing tasks large and small.


One key to writing effectively is to have a keen insight into your readers. If you don’t, you could lose their respect, attention, and interest before they’ve gotten through your first sentence — making your document as ineffective as a foreign language installation manual.

  1. Who’s my primary reader? Do I have multiple readers?

Determine if your primary reader is technical or non-technical, inside or outside your company or industry; a peer, manager, subordinate, customer, or someone else. This will guide the structure your document and show how formal or informal it should be. You’ll understand what information to include and determine and how to approach each topic. If you have multiple levels of readers (any combination mentioned), default to the most senior.

  1. What do my readers need to know about the topic? (pls use italics where indicated)

All business writing has an objective — to achieve a result. Too often, people sit at their computers and do a brain dump giving too much or too little information. Think of what your readers need to know for you to achieve the result you want.

  • What are their concerns?
  • What will they do with the information?
  • What is their level of knowledge about the topic?
  • Do they have any preconceived notions?
  • How do they process information?
  • Are they visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners?
  1. What’s in it for my readers?

When you receive a message, you subconsciously ask yourself, “Why should I care? What’s in it for me?” Your readers will ask those same questions. Will it make their jobs easier, help them look good to their superiors, solve a problem, have a financial impact? Look through their lenses and understand what’s in it for them — why they should care. Typically it involves money, however, subtle. For

example, you may think that a monthly newsletter to your customers isn’t about money, but it IS about heightening your brand which = $$.

  1. Does my writing need a special angle, subtlety, or point of view?

This can be sliced and diced in a number of ways:

  • Managers, for example, are big picture people; they want the bottom line to make high-level decisions. Technical people need details.
  • Americans use direct communication styles. Others around the world are less direct and may initially refer to people by last name.
  • Readers may speak the same language, yet there may be differences. Think of language differences just between English speakers in the US and UK.
  1. What’s my reader’s attitude towards the topic?

You may not always tell readers what they want to hear, but you must tell them what they need to hear. Will they be responsive (positive)? Neutral? Unresponsive (negative)? Determining this will help you position the text. If your readers will be responsive or neutral, get right to the point. This isn’t a joke where you save the punch line for the end. If they’ll be unresponsive, build your case before delivering the news, give a reason they’ll understand, or offer an alternative if possible.


Have you ever received an email, and the sender rambled on tediously? You scratch your head, wrinkle your brow, and wonder, “What’s that all about?” “What am I supposed to do?” People who ramble haven’t determined their purpose or need; they just ramble. Don’t be a writing rambler.

  1. My purpose is to ______________ so my reader will __________________________.

My purpose is to: Of all the writing you do, 99 percent is PERSUASIVE writing. For example, are you’re writing to inform readers of a new product offering or trying to persuade them to purchase the product? Are you writing to your manager explaining a brainstorm you had or trying to persuade your manager your idea is worth listening to? Once you realize that you’re writing to persuade, you’ll start to write STRATEGICALLY, rather than generically.

So my reader will: When your readers know the next step or action item you expect, they can process your message with a view towards that action. Do you want them to discontinue testing? Attend a meeting? Halt shipping? Contact you? Send a check? If you call this section out with the heading “Next Step” or “Action Required” (followed by a colon and what the action is) it can’t be missed. Make your expectations clear.

Key Issue

Did a family member ever leave a note on the kitchen table, “Don’t forget to leave me $20?” That’s the key issue. Advertising and marketing folks know that reading is done on the fly. They write in soundbites, focusing on one key issue.

  1. What’s the one key point I want my reader to remember?

Put on your advertising hat. If your readers forget just about everything you wrote, what’s the one key point you want them to remember. That’s akin to an earworm – a tune you hear that plays over and over in your head. What do you want your readers’ earworm be? Consolidate the key point into one sentence. If you’re not able to do that, you’re not ready to write a coherent message. Once you’ve determined the key issue, make sure it’s clearly called out with a headline, underline, bold, or in some way to create your readers’ earworm.  


Reporters use the who, what, why, where, when, and how questioning technique to guide them through stories. The answers to these questions provide readers with the information they’ll want to know.

  1. What questions will my readers need answered?

Here’s an example: Assume you’re sending an email announcing a meeting you’ve scheduled to solve a company problem. Key people in your organization need to attend. What are some questions each invitee may want answered in advance of attending?

Who else will be there?

What is the purpose of the meeting – the agenda?

Where and when will the meeting be held?

Why am I being invited?

How can I prepare and/or contribute?

Business writing doesn’t have to cause angst. You don’t need to be the next coming of Ernest Hemingway or J.K. Rowling to write clearly. Use the Jump Start Planning Sheet to start your next writing task, and join the 30 – 50 percent who have experienced the amazing results!

Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts has been a training professional for the last 25 years. She’s the author of 25 books, including “New Rules For Today’s Workplace,” “Speaking Your Way to Success,” Business “Writing for Dummies,” and several other Dummies books. She’s been quoted in The New York Times and other publications and has appeared on radio and television networks throughout the United States.