Business Students: Tips for Better Writing

Although most research papers and chapter summaries have the same basic requirements regardless of the discipline — Media Communications, Psychology, etc.— Business papers have a few unique challenges that deserve elaboration.

Beware the Cliché

While clichés may be grammatically acceptable, they make for tedious reading and can reflect negatively on the writer in terms of originality. Business papers especially seem to contain many clichés, but this issue can be resolved with a few simple actions.

Recognize Clichés — In order to eliminate clichés from your writing, you must first learn to identify them. A cliché is a word or phrase that has been so overused that it has lost all meaning or impact. It is perceived as boring and unoriginal. 

Examples: “it's neither here nor there,” “think outside of the box,” “win-win situation,” “look out for number one,” whole nine yards,” “last but not least,” etc.

You may hear these so often that you don't even realize that they are clichés, but they are. If it's a word or phrase that you've heard or seen repeated over and over, then it's likely that it qualifies in this category.

Identify Your Intent — If you are uncertain of this, then it makes it more difficult to omit clichés. For example, if you use the term “bottom line” throughout your paper, why? If you are making a statement about a company's goal or objective, why not say something like, “Company XYZ's primary goal is to make a profit” rather than “The bottom line is that Company XYZ must be profitable.”

Determine an Appropriate Substitute — Do you need to re-phrase or can you simply eliminate the cliché altogether? For example, the cliché “whole nine yards” can easily be replaced with a simple “everything.” The term “last but not least” can be removed as it is redundant; the reader will realize it is the last item while reading it.  You haven't changed the meaning in either example but have instead communicated it clearly and concisely.

Avoid/Minimize Slang

Some common slang that appears in Business papers includes: “corporate ladder,” “ducks in a row,” “touch base,” and “bring to the table.”  While these still might be verbally acceptable in the business world, they should be avoided in written communications.

Poor Choice: “Most workers at Company XYZ try hard to climb the corporate ladder.”

Better Choice: “The majority of workers at Company XYZ strive to advance their careers there.”

Poor Choice: “Company XYZ brings know-how and a lot of skilled workers to the table.”

Better Choice: “Company XYZ brings business knowledge and a strong workforce to the merger proposal.”

If you do feel that it's appropriate to use slang to better communicate an idea or message, use it sparingly and place “quotation marks” around the word or phrase to let the reader—which includes your professor—know that you are aware that it is slang.

Wordiness & Passive Verbs

More is not necessarily better when it comes to writing. This is especially true when you are writing about topics with which the “average reader” may not be familiar. Be clear and concise and use active verbs whenever possible. Engage the reader and make it relevant to him/her.

Poor Choice: “On September 13, 1945, the XYZ Company was founded by John Doe for the purpose of providing farmers with crop-dusting services that were very much in need at that time.”

Better Choice: “John Doe founded the XYZ Company in September of 1945 in order to provide farmers with much needed crop-dusting services.”

Notice that the verb in the second example is active: “John Doe founded…” In the first example, it is passive: “…XYZ Company was founded by…”

Graphs/Charts/Tables/Bulleted Lists

Use these items in support of your writing rather than in place of it. Graphs, charts, and tables can help support or strengthen a point visually, but they cannot and should not replace the written word in research papers.

Don't over-rely on bulleted lists either. Remember that you are writing an academic paper and not a memo or PowerPoint slide show for a presentation.

Final Word

Don't minimize the importance of clear, complete information when writing. Using poorly chosen words and phrases can confuse the receiver of your information. In the business world especially, this can lead to faulty decision-making and can even have negative financial impacts upon companies.

By Don Miller, Writing Specialist, 2008