Why is Business Writing so Difficult?

by Jason Ocker

All writing is difficult. You’re trying to evoke emotion with nothing more than tiny black shapes. Make a persuasive argument with little more than a static piece of paper or glowing screen. And you’re doing it without all the powerful communication tools that thousands of years of biology have given us: body language, personalized responses, dialogue.  Writing is hard.

But business writing is its own kind of difficult. And by business writing, I’m talking about business writing as applied to marketing. You can call it B2B marketing writing, although that constrains it too much. And it’s a weird phrase. But I’m not talking about funny sentences that sell energy drinks. We’re talking about writing a compelling business story.

The Topics are Complex

What does your business sell? Financial software? Medical billing platforms? Enterprise communications systems? Industrial grade fasteners? Like even the words for what B2B businesses sell don’t automatically conjure any emotion or image or identification. And that’s just the name of the product. Now get into how they work, why customers need them, and (the hardest part) why yours is different from competing products , and it’s pretty obvious that you need at least a semi-expert grasp of your topic before you can even open a Google doc. Which is a big part of the secret to writing well, in general.

And, of course, business itself is complex. So you’re wrapping a complex topic inside a complex topic, and then trying to make it clear in a few keystrokes.

But wait. It…gets…worse.

The Vocabularies are Limited

Let’s say you write a romance novel, you set it in Atlanta, you date it to 1850, and then add some time travel. There are a lot of powerful, lush vocabularies you get to play with here—the genres of romance and science fiction, the geography and culture of Atlanta and the South, the nineteenth century. To write this single novel, you get multiple sets of rich, well-developed words, concepts, and metaphors that you can pull from and adapt to create something unique and interesting. The vocabularies for business writing starts with business. Which is a limited, vague vocabulary that covers not-real things and doesn’t evoke much. This is the vocabulary of return on investment and market share. Liabilities and assets. Revenue and expenses. Transform and optimize. Product. A vocabulary that mandates phrases like “lower cost” and “increased efficiencies” just as much as grammar mandates periods and commas.

Worse, today, business is technology. And technology, historically, has had similar challenges with its vocabulary. Platform, data, application, digital. Although, as technology also becomes not just business, but life, this vocabulary will deepen and broaden.

The one saving vocabulary that a business writer has, really, at this point, is the vocabulary of their own industry. If you’re in the aerospace industry, that’s a rich vocabulary. So too with the medical industry. Even the finance industry, which many think of as only dollars and decimals, covers everything from politics to society to, well, every other industry.

The Audience is Suspicious

For most types of writing, the intended audience is rooting for the writer. When they pick up a book, they’re hoping it’s good. When they read a tweet, they’re hoping it’s funny or insightful. Otherwise they wouldn’t give it a chance.

But the audience for business writing is fundamentally (and rightly) suspicious. They know that these words and sentences and paragraphs are trying to sell them something. That’s their only reason for existing. And that’s true even for an audience who is ready to buy. They’re still suspicious of everything they’re reading—from the layers of cost to the features promised to its quality to its difference from any other competing product.

Business Writing Should be Difficult

There’s no way to make business writing easy. It’s not supposed to be. But to recognize the challenges of why it’s so difficult should help us write better business materials. If the topic is complex, do the research and get educated. If a vocabulary is limited, push it, be inventive, take chances with the language. If the audience is suspicious, write with more openness, clarity, and definiteness.

Keep going to Part II, where we parse a related question, “Why is Most Business Writing Bad?” And the answer isn’t solely that it’s difficult.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Jason writes. Tells stories. Develops strategies. He oversees a wide range of creative and technical projects. He’s also an award-winning author of half a dozen books and has been featured on or in CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

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