An Important Skill
Of all the classes I took in college and graduate school, the two
that have helped me most in my career have been English Composition and
Business English. In these classes I learned effective writing skills,
which I have used in every job I have ever had. No other job but my work
on this site included writing as part of my job description.
In spite of this, I was required to write in every job, and it was
taken for granted that I would be able to do this. This is the case with
most jobs - whether you must write internal memos, correspond with
clients, or help design sales materials. Writing beautiful prose and
poetry is a talent. Writing effectively, however, is a skill that can be
Organize Your Writing
Whether you are writing a memo to your co-worker or a report for your
boss, you should decide what information you want to convey.
Here is how to do this:
List each item you need to discuss in your memo or report.
Put them in order - from most to least important Write a brief
summary of your entire memo - this will be your first paragraph.Expand
on each item listed in step If any action needs to be taken by the
recipient, state that in your closing paragraph.
Avoid wordiness. Say out loud what you are trying to write. Listen to
how the words sound. For example, the sentence, "I found out that I
should take a look at our past sales figures in order to come up with a
plan to help us re-evaluate our sales technique" could be more simply
stated as "I must take a look at our past sales figures to re-evaluate
our sales technique."
Write for your audience. Use simple language. You don't want the
reader to need a dictionary to decipher what you are trying to say. You
should not try to impress your reader with your huge vocabulary. Chances
are you will frustrate your reader instead. Most people are juggling
several tasks at the same time, and are interested in receiving only
You are responsible for making this happen. Instead of saying, "His
gregarious nature credentials him as a superlative candidate for the
job," say "His friendliness makes him a top candidate for the job."
Stay away from jargon your reader may not understand. If your work is
very technical, but the person you are writing to is not well versed in
that field, stick to words that person will understand.
For example, if you are a Web site designer, this sentence in a memo
to your client, a psychologist, will make no sense: "What would you like
me to use as the BGCOLOR for your site: #ADD8E6 or #FFFFFF?" Anyone
proficient in Web page design knows that this question can be translated
to "What would you like the background color of your site to be: Light
Blue or White?" However, don't expect your client to be more familiar
with this technical jargon than you would be with her discussion of a
psychological term such as trichotillomania.
A cliche a day keeps the reader away - or at least it does not make
him or her remember what you are saying. You want your writing to be
memorable. Because we hear cliches often, we become desensitized to
them.The words, then, are not uniquely associated with your writing.
Rather than saying "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do
today" in a memo to a subordinate you are trying to motivate. Simply
say, "Stop procrastinating. Get the job done now." When possible, use
the active voice. The active voice makes your sentence stronger and
usually shorter. Let's try these examples. Passive voice:
"Sales increased due to the networking I did." Active voice: "My
networking increased sales. "Don't be redundant. It is not necessary to
say "2 p.m. in the afternoon" or "the expectant pregnant woman." Saying
"2 p.m." or "2 in the afternoon" or "the expectant woman" or "the
pregnant woman" all convey what you want to say and are less wordy.Of
course pay attention to grammar.
Use Strunk and White's Elements of Style, available on the Web. A
good dictionary should be nearby, along with a thesaurus. A thesaurus
will allow you to keep your writing fresh by helping you find a variety
of words to use.
Many of these resources are available online.Proofreading is one of
the most important things you can do. Since you probably do most of your
writing on a computer, you have access to automated spelling and grammar
Beware though -- some words, used in the wrong context may be missed
by computerized spell checkers. For example the sentence "To employees
attended too meetings two learn about the gnu software," would pass
through the spell check without any misspellings being detected. Have
someone else proofread your document, if possible. If time allows, put
your composition away, and proofread it later, or even better, the next