If you are like most people, you probably write 50 or more emails per day. And maybe several documents or sets of slides per week. While you probably did a bit of writing in school, it’s rarely stressed in most disciplines. If you’re one of the many people in business for whom writing has never been a major concern, you should know that writing skills are a key career differentiator more and more every year. Your goal should be to write better than the competition. Spending time to improve your writing can result in an improvement in your marketability and promotional prospects. There’s no substitute for practice, but here are a few pointers to put you on the right track.
1. Less is more.
In any kind of writing, concision matters. Ironically, as written information becomes more and more important, people are less and less willing to read. Most articles (and certainly videos) are meant to capture attention in 30 seconds or less. So use words sparingly. Avoid overly long sentences. Use bullet points to mark the important topics or key points. Get in and get out!
2. Use understandable terms, not jargon.
Everyone in business hates writing that describes “strategical synergies” when “opportunities to work together” is more meaningful without sounding ridiculous. While sometimes jargon is unavoidable – in a business requirement document or technical specification, for example – try using plainer language. Try to avoid the overuse of acronyms when possible. “Can you give me the ETA for the TPS for the EMEA meeting?” will get eyerolls from most. Even for people in the same field as you, jargon is often inefficient – the eye slides right past it without really catching the meaning. There’s a reason that jargon is so often used when a writer wants to avoid saying anything.
3. Write once, check twice.
Proofread immediately after you write, and then again hours or even days later. Nothing is more embarrassing than a stupid typo in an otherwise fine document. And nothing is worse than a hasty email, especially written in an emotional moment, that you regret forever. Except in the direct emergency, always give yourself time to set your writing aside and come back to it later.
4. Create your own templates.
Whenever you write an especially good letter, email, memo, or other document, if there’s the slightest chance you’ll be writing a similar document in the future, save it as a template for future use. Since rushing through writing is one of the main causes of typos and other errors, saving time by using a pre-written document can also save you errors. Just make sure to remove any specific information – names, companies, etc. – before re-using it! This is the one downfall of templates.
5. Be professional, not necessarily formal.
Informal shouldn’t mean unprofessional – keep any personal comments, bad jokes, and gossip out of your business communications. Remember that many businesses (possibly yours) are required by law to keep copies of all correspondence – don’t email, mail, or circulate anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable having read into the record in a public trial. This is a hard one for most people to remember because it happens so rarely. But that one time it does happen, you won’t enjoy it at all if you haven’t followed this rule.
6. Remember to solve problems rather than create them.
If you give someone a problem in an email, especially if you do it often, they will stop reading your email eventually. Most business communication is meant to achieve some purpose or resolve some situation, so make sure you include a call to action and your proposed solution. Don’t leave it to your readers to decide what to do with whatever information you’ve provided – most won’t even bother, and enough of the ones who do will get it wrong that you’ll have a mess on your hands before too long.
7. Don’t give too many choices.
Ideally, don’t give any. If you’re looking to set a time for a meeting, give a single time and ask them to confirm or present a different time. At most, give two options and ask them to pick one. Too many choices often leads to decision paralysis, which generally isn’t the desired effect.
8. Benefits, not features.
A cornerstone of effective writing is describing benefits, not features. Why should a reader care? For example, few people care that the iPhone 6 Plus has an 8 MegaPixel camera – what they care about is that it can take better pictures with more clarity. 8MP is a feature; better pictures is the benefit. Benefits engage readers, since they’re naturally most concerned with finding out how they can make their lives easier or better.
9. Hire a ghost writer.
If your current writing job is important, hire someone for whom writing is their strong suit. A good freelance writer can produce training manuals, internal letters, newsletters, slideshows, blog posts, wiki entries, and just about any other kind of writing you can think of. Expect to pay at least $20 an hour, and more likely $50, for good writing – anyone who charges less is either not very good, or not very business savvy. Upwork (formerly Odesk) has made writing freelancers cheaper than ever, so take advantage if there is an important document that might mean something to your career.
Effective writing is a learnable skill. If your business writing isn’t up to snuff, follow the tips above and see if you can’t improve it.