Friday, January 7, 2011

7 Ways to Become a Better Writer

Writing is easy for me. Figuring out how to work my food processor or keep the cats from chewing on plastic bags until they puke is much tougher.

Fortunately, there is help for those who struggle with writing. (And anyone who can figure out how to work my food processor is welcome to buy it at my next garage sale.)

If you want to become a better writer, check out this column I did for Gannett/USA Today:

Have you ever written an e-mail or report that uses phrases like "multiple regression analysis" or "internal training indicatives"?

While you may not have used those exact terms, if you do any writing in the business world, chances are you've written something equally as confusing and mind numbing.

Not only is poor writing difficult to wade through, but it also leads others to make poor decisions when they're unable to grasp truly important elements mired in bad prose.

In other words, your poor writing can lead to real bottom-line consequences for companies whose decision-makers base their strategies on your faulty or confusing writing, Jane Curry says.

Curry, a business writing consultant, says many companies pooh-pooh the idea that they need to provide more training for employees who need to improve their writing skills.

"The perception is that writing is a 'soft skill' that anyone can do," she says. "But employees — young ones especially — struggle with how to use language in business functions."

At a time when companies must compete globally — and communicate mainly through written communications with remote workers — not addressing the poor writing issue is a mistake, she says.

"The corporate landscape is littered with lost opportunities and ideas not allowed to see the light of day because of poor writing. You can't assess the true worth of something when you fail to make things clear," Curry says. "And many people just don't even question something they've read because they don't understand it in the first place."

In a new book, Be a Brilliant Business Writer with Diana Young, her partner at Curry Young Consultants Inc., Curry points out a number of ways to improve business writing. Among them:

Make sure your first sentence passes the "so what?" test.

If you begin with an item that has your readers saying, "so what?" then you're on the wrong track.

"Your readers pay attention to the first sentence or two of every paragraph, and then they drop like flies," the authors say. "In fact, by the middle of the second sentence, most readers are already thinking about whether they can last another hour without a plate of fries."

Include only relevant content.

"Just because you know something doesn't make it interesting or valuable to other people," Curry says. "Become your readers. Think of what it is they need to know. "

Make it visually appealing.

Most readers give only about 4.5 seconds to an e-mail, letter or memo, so grab their interest by using bullets, subheadings and graphics.

Keep it simple.

Don't use a word like "aggregate" when "total" will work just fine and is more easily understood.

"Simple diction announces that you respect your readers and understand that they live in a hard place between pressing responsibilities and too little time," the authors write. "Abandon the common misconception that if it sounds erudite it must be profound."

Use an average sentence length of 15 to 28 words to ensure the writing flows better.

Put the subject and verb early so the sentence moves from the simple to more complex information.

"If you place the subject and verb early in a sentence, you guarantee that your readers will immediately understand exactly who is doing what, and you improve flow and coherence," they write.

Don't forget transitions.

Effective transitions can keep your writing from being "choppy," they say. Some transitional words to keep in your writing arsenal include "also," "similarly," "although," "to illustrate" and "to sum up."

Drop the buzzwords.

"When you're writing for customers, you don't want to create obstacles," Curry says. "Don't use some kind of internal company vocabulary that no customer is going to understand. Don't just regurgitate language without care and respect for other people."

What other ways can people improve their writing?



Scot Herrick said...

On the vast majority of e-mails, your first sentence should be what the e-mail is about or what you are asking the person to do.

"This e-mail asks you to make a decision on X." "This e-mail is to inform you of a decision on X."

If you tell the person up front what you are asking of them, they will know what is coming so they don't have to figure it out from the e-mail three levels down.

And they are more likely to read it because they know what they need to do.

Anita said...

Good suggestion. I don't know about you, but I've read several e-mails that I have no idea what the person is asking, or wants from me. Those are usually the ones that get put at the end of my "to do" list.

Mike_Montkey said...

Spell out every acronym, especially for certifications. You may have worked for a year to earn it, but most of the time, I've never heard of it.

RoseAG said...

Short sentences and short paragraphs help ensure whoever gets the email will bother to read it all.

I have a client who sends me email with runon paragraphs. I can't not respond to his messages, so I have to print them out and read them. You can do that when you are the client. If you aren't the client it's another matter!

For maximum effectiveness the messsage should not scroll.

If you have an important and detailed message, say with the words "regression analysis" in it, that can not be summarized in two quick sentences, why not put it in a Word document, complete with supporting information, and send that? Then at least your reader will know what they're up against!