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7 ways to modernize business writing mechanics

By Cheryl Toth, MBA  bio

You don’t need a degree in English to write professional-looking business documents. Here are seven things that add polish to business writing prose.

1. Use standard business fonts.

I’m all about creativity. But don’t get creative when it comes to business fonts. Stick to Arial or Times New Roman. If the organization you’re writing to or for is on the conservative side (hospital, state medical board, journal publisher), Times New Roman is the best bet.

I’ve noticed Calibri and Cambria creeping into business documents lately, but I suggest sticking with the classics. And for sure avoid novelty fonts such as Comic Sans, Papyrus, or any of those scripted fonts in your font pick list. Not only are they harder to read, they can make business documents look unprofessional and naive.

2. Set your base font to 12 point black.

12 point font size is standard for business documents, letters, and professional communication. Smaller font is harder to read, and automatically makes your writing denser. For those who feel a case can be made for 11 point, which indeed has become more common over the last five or ten years, I would dissuade you. 12 point type provides the best readability. And avoid subjecting readers to 10 point font. It’s far too small for the eye, and again, results in denser, writing.

When it comes to font color, use black. Not dark blue, not a dark shade of gray. Black. Black against white is simple, classic, and easy to read. Want to use a color for titles or headings to make the copy pop? That’s ok, as long as you stay away from garish or neon shades, and keep the base font color black.

3. Use headings to break up text.

When writing reports, summaries, policies, procedures, and other documents, headers do two primary things: 1) break up what would otherwise be a long string of paragraphs, and 2) alert readers as to the topic or theme that will be covered in the paragraph or section that follows. Both of help readers consume your copy and move through the document easily. Use them strategically, and don’t be afraid to get a bit creative. Well-crafted headings add interest and can keep readers engaged.

4. Leave room for “white space.”

“White space” is the space on a page where there are no words or images. It allows the eye to “rest” as it moves along the page. A document created with good white space has greater visual appeal and is easier to read. Here are a few ways to add it to your business documents:

  • Use a base font size of 12 point so you don’t overcrowd the page.
  • Use 1″ margins in the document. Smaller margins make the text look denser.
  • Break up sections with subheadings; double-space them from paragraphs.
  • Use bullet lists.
  • Insert images such as charts, graphs, or photos.

5. STOP USING ALL CAPS.

IF I AM A PATIENT, IT IS ANNOYING TO READ ALL CAPS in your financial policy, on the registration form, or at the bottom of the patient statement. It signals to the reader that you REALLY, REALLY think this is IMPORTANT. So important, in fact, that you had to put it in all caps because you think they are not smart enough to understand IT IS IMPORTANT.

See what I mean about annoying?

Remove ALL CAPS from your documents. It’s more professional, and less sophomoric.

6. Make sure quotation marks enclose punctuation.

Quotation marks enclose punctuation. Notice how the comma and period are inside of the quotation marks in the examples below.

This: “Preparing for a security breach is kind of like playing poker in Vegas,” he told me.

Not This: “Preparing for a security breach is kind of like playing poker in Vegas”, he told me.

This: A recent Medscape survey cited the top two causes of physician burnout: Too many bureaucratic tasks,” and “Increasing computerization of practice.”

Not This: A recent Medscape survey cited the top two causes of physician burnout: “Too many bureaucratic tasks”, and “Increasing computerization of practice”.

7. Use one space after a sentence, not two.

If you learned to type on a typewriter, as I did, you were probably told to put two spaces after a period, question mark, or exclamation point. My high school typing teacher was a stickler for rules, and I remember her teaching us this one.

The backstory dates to early printing presses, which used various sentence spacing conventions. According to Wikipedia, until the 20th century, many publishing houses and printers used an additional space between sentences. When the typewriter was introduced in the late 19th century, typists used two spaces between sentences to mimic the style used by traditional typesetters.

Printers phased out this wide spacing in the mid-20th century, and in the 1950s, single sentence spacing became standard in books, magazines and newspapers. Further, computer keyboards have always delivered consistent spacing between characters, and digital printing has always used the convention of one space between sentences.

So if you currently use two spaces after a sentence, your writing will look more modern if you switch to one. Many sources cite the one space convention as correct, including the Modern Language Association of America (MLA) Handbook, Chicago Manual of Style, Wikipedia, and others.


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