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INSIGHT

3 tricks that make your business writing stronger

By Cheryl Toth, MBA  bio

Ever finished reading a well-written report, article, or white paper and say to yourself, “I wish I could write like that.” Well, with a little fine-tuning and practice, you can. You don’t have to be a professional wordsmith to produce strong business prose. Add power your documents using these straightforward techniques.

1. Use active voice.

Unlike the passive voice style preferred by so many high school English teachers (including my own), active voice adds energy to your writing and is preferred in business documents.

When using active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action, which makes sentences stronger, clearer, and often shorter. For example:

Passive Voice Active Voice
(Subject is performing the action.)
The credit balance report was given to Joan by Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith gave Joan the credit balance report.
Last month, a new governance agreement was implemented by the physicians. The physicians implemented a new governance agreement last month.
A HIPAA training video will be watched by the entire staff every year. The entire staff is required to watch a HIPAA training video every year.

Review some of your most recent reports, emails, and documents. Are you predominantly using passive or active voice? If it’s the former, try flipping your sentences into active voice like the preceding example, and notice if it makes your writing feel faster to read and easier to understand.

2. Convert paragraphs to bullet lists when you can.

This is a magical change that will clean up your writing quickly. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, converting information in chunky paragraphs to bullet lists allows the reader to see your point faster. Behold:

Good Better
Team: Thank you for your input during yesterday’s meeting. After reviewing it with the physicians, we’ve decided to start evaluating secure text messaging platforms and consider purchasing one after we have reviewed three demos. All of you will be asked for feedback and participate in helping make a decision about which tool is best for our practice and patients. Our hope is to make a decision by Sept. 1 and initiate implementation before October.  Team: After considering everyone’s input, the physicians have approved the following plan for secure text messaging systems. We will:

  • Schedule three demos of secure text messaging platforms.
  • Assess each platform as a team.
  • Choose a vendor by Sept 1.
  • Initiate implementation by Oct 1.

Notice that each bullet statement starts with an action verb. Action verbs are words that express, well, an action, be that physical, mental, or intended. To identify an action verb in a sentence, look for the word that describes an activity or thing that can be done. For instance:

  • The manager will interview him for the billing office job next week.
  • Please review this report and provide me with your edits.
  • The goal of today’s meeting is to discuss the copier lease agreement.

Use this list of Action Oriented Bullet Statements, compiled by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, as a reference to help you integrate action verbs into your writing. Or this list, from ELON University, which provides business categories for the verbs.

3. Lose the exclamation points.

Unless you are a teenage girl or a rageaholic, the use of exclamation points is almost always unnecessary and makes business documents look sophomoric. Unfortunately, they are highly overused and almost always incorrectly used in business writing.

Exclamation points are correctly used when the information is: hugely important or exciting, a real emergency, or an actual exclamation. (For example, Hey!) Check out this cheeky and useful flow chart from Hubspot to help you determine when and when not to use exclamation points.

I pulled these examples from recent business emails:

  • Thank you for agreeing to speak at our national conference!
  • I’m looking forward to having lunch with you next week!
  • I will take care of that when you come to the office!

From a correct usage standpoint, are any of these statements exclamation point-worthy? Nope. These sentences should all end with a period.

Business writing is professional writing. Use as many !!!!’s as you wish in Facebook posts and Google Chats. But in business emails, proposals, customer communications, and reports, use the exclamation point only once in the document, if you use it at all. This one simple change will instantly make your documents read as if written by a level-headed professional as opposed to an overly enthusiastic adolescent.


Cheryl Toth, MBA is a Tucson-based business writer and healthcare professional who blends exceptional communication skills with an ability to educate and inspire. She brings 20 years of practice consulting, technology management, and presentation experience to her projects. Cheryl is a co-host of Sound Practice, a Greenbranch Publishing podcast for physicians and practice leaders, launching in the fall of 2018.


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