Even when your thoughts are clear, putting them down on paper is hard work. Here are 12 tips to get you through your next quarterly report, company-wide email or any other dreaded writing project.
Does the thought of writing a presentation or a company-wide email make your palms sweat? Do you keep moving it to the bottom of your “to do” list, hoping it will magically disappear?
Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who has a natural flair for composition, but chances are your writing talent isn’t what got you into your current position. Fortunately, there are ways to ease your pain. These 12 pro tips will put you on the path to better writing with less stress:
1. Know your reader.
Before you write even one word, ask yourself, “Who’s going to read this?” Is your audience a large group of employees? A select few colleagues in the C-suite? Someone outside the company who may not know your internal language and acronyms? Thinking about your audience will help you zero in on your content, style, tone and word choice.
2. Make an outline.
If you’re in a hurry, you may be tempted to dive straight in and start writing. That’s an easy way to get stuck. You’ll save time in the long run by identifying your main points and arranging them in a logical order that flows well. As an added bonus, this can help you find an easy place to start writing instead of racking your brain over how to begin that intimidating first sentence.
3. Keep it simple.
Remember that you’re writing to communicate, not to show off your vocabulary or business expertise. Use plain English. Avoid big words where short ones will work better. “Utilize” is just an overblown way of saying “use.” Writing “myself” instead of “I” or “me” (“Please join myself and rest of the team in the conference room”) isn’t just stilted — it’s grammatically wrong.
4. Keep it brief.
Paragraphs can vary in length, but it’s best to keep them as short as possible. Busy readers will look at a long block of text and skip right over it. A good rule of thumb is not to exceed seven lines per paragraph.
5. Avoid unnecessary qualifiers.
The use of vague qualifiers is a common pitfall in business writing. Words like “some,” “many,” “probably” and “somewhat” make sentences sound dull and create the impression that you’re unsure about what you’re saying. Observe this padded sentence: “Building trust, as many CEOs believe, can be one of the more important aspects of leadership.” Notice how much stronger it becomes when we weed out the weak modifiers and use one strong one: “Building trust is vital to CEO leadership.”
6. While you’re at it, eliminate any other unnecessary words.
Lean writing is strong writing, so look for any words you can cut. Adverbs are often redundant. There’s no reason to say “run quickly,” since “run” already implies speed. When writing tight, pretend you have to pay a dollar for every word you use.
7. Use subheadings.
Look at the layout of this article. See how it uses subheadings followed by short paragraphs with white space in between? This makes the text look inviting and easy to scan. In these days of packed schedules and short attention spans, written content needs to look friendly and accessible.
8. Don’t overuse business jargon.
Sometimes you need to use a business term to communicate effectively. If you’re writing about your company’s initiative to adopt “best practices,” by all means use that phrase. But if you write about leveraging your company’s core competencies to ladder up to results-oriented efficiencies, your reader’s eyes will glaze over faster than you can say “low-hanging fruit!”
9. Check your grammar.
Nothing undercuts the professional tone of business writing like an obvious grammatical error. Double-check to make sure your nouns and verbs agree, you haven’t confused “their” with “there,” and your plural nouns are apostrophe-free. Grammar-checking software and services like Grammarly can help, but they won’t catch everything.
10. Use active verbs.
Verbs, as we all learned in elementary school, are action words. They give sentences much of their power. Look for strong, effective verbs, and use the active voice as much as possible. “Our team increased productivity by 15%” is much more dynamic than “Productivity was increased by 15%.”
11. Avoid sexist language, but keep wording natural.
As the language changes, the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is becoming more widely accepted. Consider your audience’s tastes. If you think your readers will be more particular about language, look for natural ways of avoiding gender specificity. Instead of forcing inclusivity in a sentence like “Every employee must wear his or her badge,” try using the plural: “All employees must wear their badges.”
12. Proofread before posting or sending.
You’ve written and edited your document. Now it’s ready to release, right? But wait! There’s one final step. You’d be amazed at how many typos and grammatical errors can remain, even when you think you’ve caught everything. Go through it carefully to make sure everything is correct. Read it out loud, forcing yourself to pay attention to every word. Whenever possible, ask a colleague to check it for any errors you might have overlooked. In short, do everything you can to get your writing as close to perfect as possible.
There’s no magic wand that will suddenly make writing easy, but these tips can help you get past your initial anxiety and learn to craft better communications.
Of course, our list is far from comprehensive. If you want to learn more, here are a few helpful resources on strong, effective writing: