Writing Skills for a New Era
“Business writing” isn’t what it used to be — no one starts a letter with “Dear Sir/Madam” anymore (or even writes letters, for that matter). Advice about professional writing in the workplace, however, hasn’t caught up to the new realities of distributed working and asynchronous communication.
This lag, coupled with the fact that writing doesn’t convey the same tone of voice and nonverbal cues that face-to-face or video communication do, opens us up to mistakes and misunderstandings that can make us look bad in front of our colleagues and customers. And now that so many of us are working from home instead of at the office, we find ourselves communicating in writing more frequently than before.
Strong writing skills are more essential than ever in our new era of working and communicating from anywhere, at any time. This article is for everyone at work who is communicating via the written word and who wants to make sure they’re expressing themselves clearly to their teammates, customers, and other stakeholders.
1. Know your audience.
Who are you writing for, and why should they care about what you’ve written? (If this strikes you as an obvious question, I submit to you roughly 70% of the drafts I’ve reviewed in my time as an editor.)
The primary reason we write is to communicate with others because we want them to understand something or take some form of action. For written communication to succeed, the writer has to understand their audience’s motivations and be able to answer “What’s in it for me to read this?” from the reader’s perspective.
Your tone, vocabulary, and writing style will differ depending on who you’re trying to reach and the communication channel you’re using to connect with them. A Slack message you fire off to a close peer will have a different voice than the monthly report you share with leadership.
It comes down to empathy. Get in the habit of asking yourself who you’re writing for and why they should read what you’ve written — it’s the best action you can take to immediately level up the effectiveness of your written communication.
2. State your goal.
Being able to articulate your thesis is closely related to knowing your audience. Once you know who your reader is and the action you want them to take, what argument are you going to make to convince them to take that action?
Whatever your reason for writing, that needs to be clear to both you and the reader from the outset. (I’m reminded of one would-be essayist whose go-to device is introducing several disparate topics and waiting until the end of the piece to reveal how they relate to one another. Don’t do that.)
3. Go back to basics.
I’m not suggesting you spend time diagramming sentence structures, but brushing up on your grammar, spelling, and punctuation can make a big difference in how your colleagues and customers perceive your professionalism.
Even professional proofreaders embrace the fact that the English language is complex, and you’ll always have to look things up. Fortunately, low-cost writing tools like Grammarly and Hemingway can help you spot typos, grammatical errors, passive voice, run-on sentences, and other common mistakes.
Grammar Girl is my go-to source for answering all those “should this be hyphenated?” questions or explaining why language works the way it does when it’s not obvious to a native speaker (for example, why do we say “overwhelmed” but not “whelmed”?).
Should you ever be in the mood to read a whole book about punctuation and grammar rules, you can’t find one more entertaining than Lynne Truss’s classic Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It’s informative and funny, and you can read it all in one sitting.
4. Do your research.
Experienced writers know that putting words on the page is the easy part. Whether it’s emailing, blogging, creative writing, academic writing, copywriting, sending a text message, posting on social media, or any other type of writing, the bulk of what we call “writing” is actually thinking about what you want to say and determining how to present it to your audience in a way that will generate the desired response.
A lot of that comes down to research. Do you have the evidence you need to support your claims and make a convincing argument? If not, you might try:
- Interviewing a subject matter expert (or several).
- Conducting a thorough internet search (beyond Wikipedia).
- Reading a book that goes deep on the subject.
- Crowdsourcing (e.g., running a poll or survey).
- Digging into company data.
Even when you’re just sharing an idea with your team, how much more likely are they to get on board if you have some hard claims to support your argument?
5. Choose simple words.
“Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” — William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 is a U.S. law that requires federal agencies to use plain language in their documentation so the public can understand and use it. Here are the commonly used words that plainlanguage.gov recommends instead of their more obscure synonyms.
It’s OK to use five-dollar words when the situation calls for it and you can be reasonably sure your audience will understand you. In general, though, stick to plain, clear word choices. You won’t sound any less intelligent (but you will sound less pompous).
You’ll often find the recommendation to “read more” among the guidance offered to aspiring writers:
“If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but ‘didn’t have time to read,’ I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” — Stephen King, On Writing
… but you don’t have to be an aspiring writer for this advice to apply. Even if your sole aim is to become a better communicator at work, it helps to pay attention to what you read. What makes an email a good email? What kind of Slack message makes you drop everything to respond? What blog posts do you find yourself sharing over and over again?
What kind of writing do you feel like you want to get better at? Read more of that, and take a closer look at why it works.
7. Embrace the rough draft.
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
When I was writing papers in college, I was unable to move on to the next paragraph — the next sentence, even — until what preceded it was perfect. It wasn’t until I realized I’d never finish my thesis on time that I forced myself to adopt a new approach: Just get all your thoughts on the page without looking at it, then go back later and clean it up. (I taped a piece of construction paper over the screen of my Dell desktop so I wouldn’t be tempted to edit while drafting.)
To this day, that’s the advice I give writers who are struggling with getting started: Just barf it all out. Start writing. It doesn’t have to be pretty. We can always go back later and clean it up.
So much of what makes writing seem intimidating is the tyranny of the blank page. Like exercise, it’s the idea of it we’re reluctant to contend with — once we’re doing it, we’re fine.
If what’s stopping you from writing is the idea of getting started at all, the best way to get over that is to open a text document, start freewriting about whatever is on your mind, and only then start to play with it — assign it a structure that makes sense, maybe create an outline. But only do that after you bang out all the words that have been rattling around inside your head.
Get comfortable with messy drafts. Don’t expect to publish the first version you create, whether it’s an email, a blog post, or any other piece of writing. Learn to come back to it later and revise — revising is part of good writing.
8. Keep it concise.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” — William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style
Conciseness is foundational to effective written communication. The ability to synthesize a complex subject, break it down, and clearly summarize it in simple terms using as few words as possible is key to retaining your reader’s attention.
“Whether you’re sending a text message, writing an email, or updating your resume, wordy writing dilutes the impact of your message. Concise writing, instead, helps grab and hold your reader’s attention. It’s also likely to be more memorable and make a lasting impact on your reader.” — Grammarly
Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, a now-retired writing coach, used to ask her workshop participants what they hoped to get out of her course. Many of them, she said, would reply with comments like these:
- I would like to get my ideas across in a lot fewer words.
- I want my message to be more concise, to communicate my meaning in as few words as possible.
- I would like to communicate succinctly, without any extra words.
- I want to be more concise and to the point, with less redundancy.
- I would like to keep things concise and brief.
- I want to write in a concise manner.
- I want to have more concise communications and not include so much long-windedness.
Gaertner-Johnston uses the examples above as a starting point to show the reader how to reduce 13 words to five. “I am continually amazed by how easy it is to use fewer words,” she writes:
- I would like to get my ideas across in a lot fewer words.
- I would like to get my ideas across in fewer words.
- I would like to get my ideas across more concisely.
- I would like to get my ideas across concisely.
- I would like to communicate concisely.
- I want to write concisely.
- I want to be concise.
Your reader will be more receptive when you stay on topic and use as few words as possible to make your point.
9. Know when not to write.
Not every message needs to be communicated through writing. As a content marketer who started out in journalism, it’s been hard for me to learn that not every piece of content is best conceived as a blog post — sometimes it’s a video, a podcast, an infographic, or something else.
The point is, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I’ve had to train myself to think beyond the written word. When I think back on all the time I spent writing out step-by-step instructions via email when I could have just recorded a quick video of my screen, for example, I feel like a fool. Now, I often stop myself from replying via text and record a loom instead. It’s helpful in situations where non-verbal communication, the need to see my screen, or more context in general would be helpful. It’s changed how I work.
Video messages aren’t the only alternative to written communication — Zoom or old-fashioned phone calls are great, for example, when you need to hammer out a quick conversation, or when it’s a sensitive topic and the recipient of your message would benefit from hearing your tone of voice. Text-only communication can create misunderstandings when that additional context is missing, so it’s good to have a handle on when your message is best conveyed via writing, versus some other channel.
10. Get someone else to proofread.
It’s that simple. Get a second set of eyes (at least!) on your writing before sharing it with a wider audience. Your first reader will almost always find errors you didn’t spot and gaps you didn’t realize were there. They can poke holes in your argument so you have a chance to address them before other readers catch you off guard by asking the same questions.
Of course, it isn’t realistic to have a writing partner look over every single line you post in the company chat — but for the times when the piece you’re writing will be read by more than a few people, it’s an excellent rule of thumb to solicit another perspective before sharing it widely.
16 Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing Skills — WordStream
50 Free Resources That Will Improve Your Writing Skills — Smashing Magazine
Communication Skills for Workplace Success — The Balance
Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing — Help Scout