Want to Improve Your Business Writing? Read Novels

Reading novels is a surprisingly good way to improve business writing skills.

Subpar writing costs businesses billions of dollars. That’s according to a

That’s according to a study from CollegeBoard, which found that blue-chip companies spend $2.9 billion annually on remedial writing training for employees. The importance of good business writing can’t be understated, as a clearer message helps motivate employees and encourage customers. In one survey, more than 80 percent of businesspeople say that poor writing cuts down on productivity. Plodding through jargon, half-developed ideas and poorly organized thoughts takes a lot of time in the age of email.

Fortunately, improving business writing skills don’t require deep pockets or extensive training. Instead, sharpening this crucial skill can be as simple as reading a good novel.

The old adage states “practice makes perfect,” which definitely holds true for business writing. However, tediously completing writing assignments and begging colleagues for feedback isn’t always possible. What’s far more doable is reading literary fiction in your downtime. While reading seems passive, carefully paying attention to whatever you’re reading—whether it’s a classic by Dickens or fantasy novels along the lines of A Game of Thrones—is extremely beneficial.

Reading fiction isn’t just for budding novelists. Managers, marketing people and everyone else inside a company can benefit from reading novels instead of ubiquitous business books.

Reading Closely

It shouldn’t be a surprise that reading helps with writing. For generations, English teachers have been passing along this idea to bright-eyed students. Reading, of course, helps learn proper forms of grammar, spelling and other building blocks of writing.

However, a great novel can do so much more through a “close reading.” This method of reading is akin to how we first started learning to read. Instead of skimming through at a fast pace, skipping sentences and sometimes even paragraphs, close readers go word-by-word through the text. They pay close attention to the meaning of the sentences, rather than simply the content itself. It’s a slower process, no doubt, but it’s worth the effort.

Close reading is a challenge, as the internet has essentially rewired our brains to make skimming preferable. Researchers have found that people are skimming more and more—especially when it comes to reading something online rather than in print. Because of that, it’s all the more important to be able to craft a clear, cohesive message in business writing.

The first step in making the improvement is to give close reading a conscious effort. Next time you have a text of more than a couple pages to read, try giving it a close read. Ignore the temptation to skim. Keep a pen or pencil by your side to take notes. Look for patterns and make annotations. Is there anything that stands out in its effectiveness? If so, note it. Over time, you’ll pick up more techniques used by writers that you can use in your own writing.

Finding Meaning

Close reading is beneficial whether you’re reading an annual report or The Wall Street Journal. Novels might seem irrelevant to the business world, yet they’re the best source for learning how to make an argument and effectively convey emotion.

Those are invaluable writing traits for the business world, as emails are ripe for misinterpretation. Clouding your message with misunderstood writing makes the likelihood of misinterpretations even higher. It’s no exaggeration that professional relationships have frayed thanks to a terse or poorly written email.

A brilliant novel shows the power of each sentence. The mood can shift drastically from a change in wording here or there, and the best authors use such a trick to get their point across.

When you’re writing an email, you also have the same power. Changing up the order of your email, or substituting a few key words, can make a huge improvement in how your message is received.

What to Read

The big question: “What should I read to improve my writing?” The answer, frustratingly, depends on the person asking it.

What’s probably most important is to read something that you can at least get some enjoyment from. William Faulkner might be beloved in literary circles, but there’s a large group of people who find themselves bored to tears when reading his novels. If you’re one of those people, then it doesn’t make sense to force yourself through a novel that will bore you to death.

Alternatively, those looking to improve shouldn’t go for something too enjoyable. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a tawdry paperback, the superficial dialogue and storylines might not help you with your writing (apologies to Dan Brown).

Instead, look for something you might enjoy that’s a little outside of your comfort zone. For contemporary literature, The New York Times Best Sellers list is a wonderful place to start. While there are plenty of novels on the list that haven’t received too much critical acclaim, there are also some highly acclaimed books that can be useful.

Develop Your Craft

Regardless of which novels you choose, the best part of reading literature to improve business writing is that it’s a lot more fun than reading a self-help book or sitting through a lengthy seminar.

Just be sure to read, as Faulkner said, “[j]ust like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

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