How academic writing differs from business writing

Written by

Bianca Quarrell
Bianca’s passion is using the power of words to inspire action, change behaviour and unite tribes. That, along with empowering others to increase their own business writing skills so they can have more influence, is what gets her out of bed every day.
Education is power. There’s no doubt about it. A good education gives us the chance to enhance our lives and to change the world for the better. But does how we’re taught to write at school and university prepare us to be good business writers?

We believe that the short answer to this question is: no. We’re not suggesting that you should have tossed away everything you learned along with the academic cap you flung joyously into the air. But we are suggesting that you may need to flip much of what you’ve learned about writing on its head.

You see, at secondary school, we learn how to write essays with introductions, topic sentences, body paragraphs and conclusions. At university, we double down on this academic form of writing. We also learn the technical skills specific to our chosen career path and to write documents relevant to that profession. How to prepare a scientific or analytical report, a strategy or perhaps even a thesis.

Academic writing is, by definition, quite formal, impersonal/objective and technical. But the irony is, when it comes to writing an influential email, proposal, speech, or a report that gets approved first time, we would argue that (in most cases) you need to do the opposite of these things!

Recently, a review of my son’s science practical, and later his English essay, drove a few truths home to me. In his essay, when I suggested editing in quite a few places to make his writing more concise, he exclaimed: “But I need to hit my word count!”. The problem is, writing to hit seemingly impossible word counts is not conducive to creating clear, concise and engaging writing. Instead, it leads to flabby, flowery writing, prone to repetition, long-winded sentences, and sometimes just plain pretentious sounding language. In his science report, all the juicy stuff was there, just not upfront (because that’s not how you write a science report). He did well on both pieces of work, rewarding him for this style of writing. Further justifying and cementing his belief that this is how to write well. And it is: for now. It will hopefully stand him in good stead for the rest of school and into university.

But on the other side of that university journey, he may well have to flip a lot of what he’s learned about writing on its head if he wants to be successful in his chosen profession. We help many of our clients with this exact process every day.

When we work with people who have science or other technical backgrounds, the most compelling/juicy part of their writing (their purpose) is usually diluted by one of two things (sometimes both at once). It is either: buried too far down in the structure of what they’re writing; or it’s surrounded by flabby language that is often more formal and technical than it should be for the audience.

Our Business Writing for Influence online course teaches everything about writing influentially in the workplace. But here are three easy things to remember if you’re trying to up your business-writing game.

Three ways to flip your business writing into shape today

1. Give them the answer first: don’t leave them guessing

People want to know why they’re reading what they’re reading upfront. It’s human nature. Don’t make them wait because you risk losing them if they need to read too far into your communication to get to your point. Academic writing – especially for those who come from science backgrounds – tends to lead with all the background to a situation before it gets to the point. On the contrary, effective business writing leads with the point – the purpose – upfront. Why? Because busy business audiences need to understand what they’re reading and why straight away. Otherwise they’ll feel like you’re wasting their time.

2. Less is more: no padding to fill imaginary word counts

Just because your report makes an impactful thud when it hits the table, doesn’t mean it will be an impactful read, or that you’ll get the outcome you need. Where academic writing tends to produce quite long (sometimes waffly) sentences, effective business writing produces sentences on the shorter side (we say 35 words is the absolute maximum but aim for 20 or less). Why? Because shorter sentences lead to higher comprehension rates. That means your audience only needs to read your sentence once to understand your meaning. Given that business audiences are busy, that’s a big win.

3. Use approachable language instead of formal and technical language

Formal, verbose, overly technical language is the very opposite of approachable. Business writing is not the place for grandiose words. Write simply and unpretentiously, so people can quickly understand what you’re saying. Remember to keep technical language to a minimum when you’re writing for an audience who doesn’t have the same technical knowledge you do. You’ll lose them otherwise. Write in an approachable way. Instead of focusing on the exploration of facts and theories, give your opinion (or your team’s opinion) based on facts and your technical experience. That positions you as a reliable – and easily understood – expert.

It all sounds pretty easy when you see it condensed to three sensible points like this, doesn’t it? But the truth is, old habits can be hard to break. Working at it every day is the only way to flip your writing on its head. Your colleagues will thank you for it – and you’ll thank yourself too. Because only you can showcase yourself, and your work, in the best possible light.

Are you interested in becoming a more effective business writer today?

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