Writing is a key skill and core competency in most workplaces. Why? Writing communicates essential information in a way that others can access and use. Every piece you create should have a goal, and the structure and words in that document should fulfill that goal. Easy, right? In fact, many people struggle with writing – staying inside your head and capturing your thoughts in an organized clear way that others will understand can feel daunting.
Why We Write
In this article, we focus on real world tips to make your writing clearer and the process easier. First, let’s look at key reasons people write – and some topline goals in each.
- Communicate Goodwill or Good News, or Thanking Someone – We want to address an occasion or success, and communicate our feelings and appreciation about the impact. This also helps shape future actions.
- Express or Respond to a Complaint – We want to objectively communicate what happened and the impact (expressing for ourselves or acknowledging it for others) and communicate next steps or requests.
- Deliver Bad News – This differs from a complaint, in that we want to share unwelcome information, but may not be inviting or seeking a fix.
- Compel Action or Gain Compliance – We want someone to do something, fill a need we have (take an action, provide information or come to a meeting), or follow a process in a certain way.
- Getting Permission – We want someone to say yes to something we want to do.
Not on this list? “Information Sharing.” Often, writers say, “I just want to let people know this information.” Push yourself (or your writer) to express the WHY behind the information. Knowing the primary reason you want to write will help point the way to how to do it. If you are not sure why you are writing, go ack to the beginning until you have that reason – that ultimate why.
Writing Original Content for Business
Your writing can directly shape how you and your team are seen at work. How? Effective writing helps you tell the story of what you and your team do, how you do it and the impact it has on customers and other audiences. Once generated, your writing may take many forms:
- An informative or celebratory email that gets sent up the chain of command – and yes, leaders like good news stories!
- An article for a newsletter, blog article or website
- A case study of success for an Annual Report or other formal document
- A letter or email for an external audience, like a customer or funder
- Key sentences or examples may be pulled from your work and placed into other pieces, such as a response to a complaint, or even a bad news story where your services or products provide a potential alternative solution
Here are five questions to ask when writing original content:
- Who am I writing for? Is this most likely to be read by an internal or external audience? How much do they likely know about the work or topic? You can make your content more accessible by writing a short context-setting paragraph that explains the background and why it matters, followed by the more detailed information you want to convey.
- What is my desired outcome? Are you hoping to instruct an audience on how to do something, build support, illustrate why an investment was worthwhile, shape opinions or sell an idea for the future? All of these are valid themes – knowing which one is most important will help you get started and focus your writing.
- What story can I tell? Representative case studies and concrete illustrations help your reader visualize what is happening and why it matters. Tell a story about someone who benefitted from your product or service, and why it mattered to them.
- What’s the easiest way to start? A blank page can be very intimidating! Start with a list, a story, a listing of facts, questions you want to answer, anything! Many people find it easier to add and edit, so “stream of consciousness” writing gives you a starting point to build on your own work.
Polishing Your Work: From Disaster to Dramatic
Since computer programs became more sophisticated in their grammar and spelling checks, many people have forgotten the larger purpose and art of proofreading. Editing is just not the same as proofreading, and spell and grammar check software will often not catch redundant text, run-on sentences and subject/verb disagreement. Here are some tips:
- Check your words – The goal is to use clear verbs, action language and positive words where possible.
- Avoid words without real meaning – These include get, really, thing, somewhat and very.
- Avoid slang and overly informal terms – You can use plain language and still be precise.
- Check to see if your sentences are short, and if the sentence structure and wordings are simple.
- Check tenses. Events from the past should be in past tense. General facts should be in the present tense. Only use future tense for something you KNOW will happen – and remember, nothing is truly inevitable.
- View grammar check tools with caution – Grammar checks can be useful for catching passive voice and other common problems, but can also lead to awkward phrasing. Use your own judgement in considering the recommendations.
- Spell check and then read again – Autocorrect is a beautiful tool, but can lead to disaster. Approach spell check with skepticism – it does not replace proofreading. Ask any “pubic” – ahem “public” – affairs professional.
- Follow your organization’s norms and style guides – If your organization has preferred terms and style, use them.
- For longer documents, look for visual appeal and insert white space, headers, bullets and clear formatting to help your reader navigate your work.
- Peer Review – When possible, have someone else read your work. Fresh eyes are more likely to find gaps or errors.
Tips for Less Formal Writing
Email. Even informal writing, like an email, should be approached with care and thought. It is also important to remember that your audience may extend beyond the addressee. Here are 10 tips for communicating by email:
- Understand the audience’s needs and viewpoint, and communicate that where possible.
- Be clear with the goal or request – ideally placing the request near the beginning of the message. Place deadlines in the subject line for easier reference.
- Include the right people in the message, and distinguish between TO (must know or do) and CC (informational or reference purposes only).
- Use meaningful email subject lines with key words to facilitate later indexing and search.
- Put in only the need-to-know information using active voice, supplemented with brief openings and closings for a positive tone.
- Keep the tone and style appropriate – professional but not too formal.
- Check for proper spelling and grammar, and proofread before sending to check on capitalization, punctuation and run-on sentences.
- Use out-of-office messages appropriately, to manage expectations.
- Save templates or good examples to assist in future writing.
- Respond appropriately to messages you receive.
Email should have purpose, and should not be used for emotionally-loaded content. If you are not sure the message will land well, test it with the following tricks:
- Delay sending it for a few hours to see if it still seems relevant or needed. You can always send email later or deliver your message in a different way.
- Read the message out loud using different voices (upbeat, angry, questioning) – people will hear your voice their head, so test to see how it might be received.
- Separately write down the outcome you want, and then read your message again – are you likely to get it? Will your message build trust and confidence?
- What’s the worst that could happen with your email – how could someone misinterpret it? How would you feel if it were forwarded to others?
- Picture the readers as you write. If you haven’t met, imagine you are communicating with a friendly neighbor. Would your message build the relationship?
Instant Message or Text Message. In some work cultures, communicating through text, instance message and team-based productivity tools is becoming more common. Here are some tips for that mode of communication:
- While these messages may be brief, spelling and basic grammar are still important.
- When in doubt, add clarifying context. Here’s a case study: In a morning meeting, you talked with your boss about two people working on project A, and two people on project B. Later, your boss sends a message: “Names of the 2 people?” Don’t assume you know which project your boss is referring to. Instead, be specific. “The 2 people on Project A are __ and __; on Project B, it’s __ and __.” This can avoid confusion later.
- Avoid long paragraphs and sentences. Short is clearer. If the answer is sensitive or nuanced, suggest a call instead.
Pryor understands how much organizations care about writing in the workplace, so we have more than 90 offerings in the category of Business Writing and Grammar. Within the category, you can search for learning modules on Email, Grammar Basics, Punctuation, Word Usage and Writing Skills. Here are some examples:
- The Writing Basics Series and Writing Clearly Series include writing and grammar basics in a range of critical areas, sin quick digestible sections.
- The Business Writing Series focuses specifically on document types you might encounter in your job, and common areas where writers may face challenges, like sentence construction and word use.
- The Note-Taking Series provides a series of tips on how to take notes efficiently and effectively – notes are often a foundation for a larger writing project, so start at the very beginning!
- The Proofreading Basics Series has four modules to help you check your own work, so errors don’t detract from its impact.
- The Grammar Guide Series pulls together 19 different easy-to-follow primers on different aspects of grammar that many find challenging, such as verb use, punctuation and parts of speech.
- Pryor also has several self-paced SkillBuilders in topics such as grammar and parts of speech.