By Sandra Kleinsasser
How you write says a lot about you as a professional, so make sure you’re putting your best foot forward. Be clear, concise and descriptive.
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third President of the United States
Reports, memos, emails, assessments, requests for bids – who imagined how much writing this job would require? Did you think you’d never worry about grammar and spelling again after you turned in that last college term paper?
So sorry. The truth is that clear, effective writing is vital to boost your professional image and support your success. Sloppy, confusing writing accomplishes little and can drag your reputation down with it. After all, many clients, employees, colleagues or potential bosses will know you mostly through your written words.
Clear, simple writing is easy for your audience to navigate and helps you get the results you want or need. Respecting your readers’ time and effort pays off.
Here are a few of my favorite business writing tips. For more help, check out these CPE courses: Effective Business Writing and Mastering Mechanics: Proofreading, Punctuation and Grammar.
1. Write with intention.
The meandering memo is a crime. You read halfway through and have no idea why you should read more. It wastes time and often results in frustration and a flurry of emails for clarification.
Don’t be THAT writer. Take time to understand why you are writing and what you hope to accomplish. Are you best served with a 10-page, data-driven report; a casual memo of recommendations; a carefully worded email; or would a phone call get the job done?
Let the reader know what they are reading and what you hope to accomplish. For some of us, asking directly can be difficult. We beat around the bush or hope the result we want is obvious. This tactic hurts your effectiveness.
Support your goal with a simple, declarative statement. In marketing, this is the “call to action,” and is often the concluding statement.
- This report will outline the results of our recent survey.
- My recommendations for the Smith proposal are …
- As requested, the most recent study is summarized here.
Call to action:
- Reply with your comments by noon Tuesday.
- Please incorporate these policy changes immediately.
- Share these survey results with your staff.
2. Be accurate.
Check any factual information that you are sharing, including URLs and phone numbers. Passing on bad information, then sending corrections makes you seem unreliable. Your valuable credibility is difficult to repair once tarnished.
3. Purge empty words.
Why use three words when one is better? Many writers fall into the trap of trying to sound “official” or smarter by leaning on tired, puffed-up phrases.
- It has come to my attention (I learned)
- For the purpose of (to)
- Due to the fact that (because)
- Informed those who attended the meeting (said)
- In the near future (soon)
- The reason why (why)
- At this point in time (now)
4. Use active voice.
Sentences in the active voice are often shorter and easier to understand quickly. Readers like that.
✗ Errors were made.
✗ Division reports were generated in a timely manner.
✗ Workers will receive important documents by mail.
✓ I made a mistake.
✓ The division issued reports on time.
✓ HR will mail enrollment forms.
5. Use concrete figures and crisp descriptions.
Squishy numbers or descriptions are not memorable. Superlatives and vague adjectives create bland, fuzzy writing. Avoid words like the best, the largest, richest, first, fastest or unique.
✗ A high number of clients.
✗ Our Product has an improved battery configuration
✗ My work has been praised many times.
✗ He was the strongest fullback.
✓ 75% of clients.
✓ The Hovercraft 290 relies on two batteries, unlike older models using four.
✓ My accuracy ranked top 10% in my last annual evaluation.
✓ In the weight room, he lifts the equivalent of a small Chevy, 50 pounds at a time.
6. Make positive statements
Positive statements are often more direct, have more impact and can be easier to understand.
Spend more time saying what you want, not what you don’t, especially when instructing colleagues or staff.
✗ Employees should not park in the north parking lot after Monday at 1 p.m. Signs will direct you to the south parking lot during construction.
✗ You will not find that our research takes more than a month to deliver, and we do not provide lengthy reports about progress, but only highlights.
✓ Park in the south lot after Monday at 1 p.m. because of construction.
✓ Our progress highlights are delivered monthly.
A note on technology: Spell check and editing software can be great, but no generic program is perfect. Review suggested changes and reject those that don’t suit your voice or meaning.
The Payoff is Worth It
Clear, direct, effective writing may seem challenging or time consuming. But the payoff (a more professional image and successful messaging) is worth your effort. Try this on the next pesky report you are assigned: build in time to review your work, consider these tips and edit yourself. Your readers will thank you.
For more writing help, check out these courses: Effective Business Writing and Mastering Mechanics: Proofreading, Punctuation and Grammar.
Sandra Kleinsasser is an independent writer/editor and former Executive News Editor at the Austin American-Statesman.
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