Originally published October 2019, Updated June 2024.
Have you ever realized you’ve been making the same mistake over and over, unaware it was a mistake? And I don’t mean business writing mistakes, not yet…

Growing up I had a friend who would say “for all intents and purposes.” I thought she kept saying “for all intensive purposes.” I didn’t know what it meant but she is smarter than me so I figured I just didn’t understand her fancy lingo. I was in my mid 20s before I figured out my error—and her saying made sense. Embarrassing!

It’s easy to stay stuck in a mistake when nothing contradicts it. But a mistake is a mistake just the same. And when it comes to your work life, writing mistakes can work against you (pardon the pun), slowing you down and making you look bad. (“Intensive purposes,” anyone?) That’s why we’re about to expose 11 common business writing mistakes: errors that get in the way of clear communication and therefore productivity. But these aren’t the errors you think they are!

And let’s be clear: Each one of these 11 writing mistakes is a mistake I make too. I’m not taking any high and mighty road here! Just the other day I wrote something and realized later I had used the wrong “their.” Me. The one who has made a living as a freelance writer for 20 years. The one who wants to teach people to be better, faster writers. And why? Because I wrote in a hurry and didn’t proofread. I know the difference between their, there and they’re. Poor grammar wasn’t my problem. Poor choices were. I chose to be careless and in a hurry.

That’s what drives most of these 11 common business writing mistakes. They aren’t the result of lack of knowledge or writing skill. We know better, we really do. No, these errors are the result of other factors that have little or nothing to do with our grammar or spelling as you’re about to see…

Mistake 1: Writing too formally

Why do people write stuffy, formal emails and documents? In my experience, it’s either because they think that’s how they are supposed to write or they are covering for a lack of confidence. Writing too formally is a mistake because it gets in the way of clear communication.

Instead, write like you talk. Use the words you’d use if you were speaking to the other person in person.

Mistake 2: Writing like you talk

On the other hand, “write like you talk” can also be a mistake when your business writing gets too colloquial or casual. My favorite example of this is “should of.” Yes, someone wrote that in a business email. They meant “should have.” But they were literally writing like they talk and chose to be phonetic over accurate.

Mistake 3: Not writing for the reader

We leave the reader out of the equation in several ways when writing for work. We can write to serve our own needs and not theirs. We can use our words and not theirs. We can include information they don’t need and waste their time. We can leave information out, forcing them to ask for more. We can use acronyms they don’t know. We can use long, wordy sentences they have to wade through like mud.

Any time we are writing without being mindful of the reader, we are probably not communicating clearly. And when we do write for the reader, we avoid many of these business writing mistakes!

Mistake 4: Including the back story

When we don’t take the reader into account, we might include a back story they don’t need. If the reader already knows the details, situation, and/or context, then including that extraneous information means writing too many words for them to read through.

Instead, consider the audience: What do they know vs. not know? Need to know vs. don’t need to know? Only include what is absolutely necessary to streamline communication.

Mistake 5: Assuming too much

On the other hand, not writing for the reader can also mean assuming too much and not giving them all the information they need—which leads to more emails asking for more information which lowers productivity.

As with mistake 4, considering the audience and what they do or don’t know can help you avoid this mistake.

Mistake 6: Being vague

If we write something—a document or an email—and the reader must ask us for clarification on a point, there’s a good chance we were vague. And when we’re vague, it’s probably because we are in a hurry. If I don’t want to take the time to look up an actual date, I might write “a few months ago.” But what if the date matters? What if three months vs. six months is significant?

Being vague can also be a way of skirting around an issue to avoid conflict in the hopes that the other person will figure out what we really mean without our having to spell it out. But that’s not clear communication.

Mistake 7: Writing long paragraphs

Shorter paragraphs can do a lot to both a) make your writing more visually appealing to the reader with white space, b) guide your reader through your writing by breaking up longer paragraphs into shorter ones that are more easily digested and understood.

Think of paragraphs like stepping stones your reader is using to get to your conclusion.

Mistake 8: Stream of consciousness writing

Stream of consciousness writing is what we do when we just start writing without thinking through our goals and our audience. It’s also often a response to being in a hurry. We dash off an email to just get it done, without thinking it through. It’s fine to write this way! Sometimes that’s what we need to get our thoughts flowing. But it’s not okay to send this kind of writing off to a hapless reader.

Instead, go with the literal flow of the stream of consciousness writing to get started. Then go back and edit: Tighten up your text, give logic to your argument, and either remove extra details or add those that were left out.

Mistake 9: Not tightening

Tightening your text is one very easy way to improve your business writing. But you don’t tighten as you write. You tighten after you write. Tightening simply means writing in an active, not passive, voice and removing extra words.

For example, the sentence “Many businesses are struggling to find the right balance between multiple competing priorities” is easily tightened by switching to active voice and by removing the words “right” and “multiple” because they are implied. Then it becomes “Many businesses struggle to find a balance between competing priorities,” or even better “Many businesses struggle to balance competing priorities.” The original sentence is 13 words. The tighter version is seven words. We cut the length of that sentence in half by tightening text.

Mistake 10: Not proofreading

Proofread! It’s such a simple thing and does so much good! Regardless of what we write and to whom, we all must proofread all the time. It is the last step and the one that will prevent errors, miscommunications and extra time spent on unnecessary back-and-forth emails.

Mistake 11: Buying into the cult of busy-ness

Finally, this last mistake might actually be the cause of the 10 others: Being part of the cult of busy-ness. This mindset has us believing we’re all simply too busy to take time to write with the intention of communicating clearly the first time. We’re just getting the job done and clarity be damned because all we want is to cross another item off a very long to-do list.

We do this when writing emails more than another work-related writing task. We send or reply quickly and therefore only generate more back-and-forth emails. Instead, we should take more time with our emails. Or as Cal Newport says in his bestseller Deep Work on page 248 “do more work when you send or reply to emails.”

That means take time with your initial message or your reply so you reduce the number of emails it takes to accomplish something. Getting a lot of emails might seem on the surface to indicate that you’re busy and therefore productive, but it might be that you’re only busy—not productive.

Slowing down might be the hardest part

As I said in the introduction, I am guilty of all 11 of these mistakes, most of which stem from going too fast. Just last week I emailed a question to a client and then later had another question and had to send another email. Embarrassed, I realized that if I’d spent more time with the document before sending the first question, I could have asked both questions in one email and saved me and the client time—plus come across as more professional.

I could add one last mistake here: Not realizing writing matters. Because it does matter. How you write says volumes about you. Natalie Canavor, the author of several business writing books, is quoted at Forbes.com as saying “You are what you write these days.” So take these 11 errors to heart and try avoiding them.

Speaking of, here are the 11 ways to avoid these common business writing mistakes:

11 ways to avoid common business writing mistakes

Sharon Ernst is a freelance editor and writer at www.weknowwords.com, a teacher and coach at www.betterfasterwriter.com. And a farmer and planet saver at www.literalroadfarm.com.