Business Writing vs. ‘Creative’ Writing: Where’s the Common Ground?

21 Nov

All I learned to write in high school was the five paragraph essay. I got by using the same intro, three body paragraphs, and copy-pasted conclusions for four years of my education. Now writing is not so simple. As a student enrolled in both a Business Communication and a Creative Writing course this semester, I am learning to write in two completely opposite forms simultaneously. On the one hand, business communication teaches you to write in a concise, active voice—a formal, if cordial, tone that states only the necessary and nothing more. In creative writing, that same voice is reviled as stillborn and one-dimensional.

How can business communication and so called ‘literary prose’ be reconciled? The truth is, to some extent, they can’t be. However, I think that you need a little bit of both to be a truly effective communicator, and they overlap in several areas.

Economy of Writing

Hemingway was an author famous for his prose: tough, terse, and simple sentences often characterized by understatement. He was able to eloquently communicate ideas about war, love, life, and death, often with only a few sentences. His message was more effective because it was brief. This works in business communications as well. In business, writing should only communicate what is absolutely necessary, and a good writer in either field takes care in leaving out the extraneous.


Flannery O’Connor once said that for a third-person story to survive, it “should never be told colloquially” (Rubin, 2007). Of course, there are exceptions, but on the whole she was right; esoteric writing by nature limits the understanding of the audience. It has to be readable. Nobody wants to read something that is full of slang they do not understand, precisely because they do not understand it.  O’Connor’s advice applies to business writing as much as short stories. Write clearly and in plain English.


James Thurber, writer for the New Yorker, claimed “a first draft is just for size” (Thurber, 1940). Business writing must be proofread for grammar and spelling to be effective. When typos appear in any form of e-mail, memo, or postmodern prose, the effect is the same: a sloppy, unprofessional, and disrespectful attitude toward the reader.

It’s tough to compare, say, the modernist writer James Joyce with a modern corporate executive and find a whole lot of common ground. But in personal and business communication, whether letters to friends or essays defending his work, Joyce could agree with the CEO—simple, understandable, and proofread communication is important in delivering an effective message. Following these three points will improve anyone’s business (or fiction) writing.

by Brian Wang





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