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Ten Tips to Improve Your Writing

By Jim Schakenbach

Today it seems like everyone is writing something – emails, blogs, tweets, you name it. Unfortunately, the Internet encourages no thought to go unpublished and so while the amount of content has increased exponentially, the quality of it has not.

As a result, our ability to communicate effectively has been dramatically affected. Never in history has so much been written and so little actually said. Social media certainly hasn’t helped. Twitter, for example, deliberately handicaps our ability to communicate well by limiting messages to just 140 characters. Texting is helping create a nation of illiterates who only know how to “write” in a curious shorthand devoid of vowels.

If you write (and these days who doesn’t?), here are ten tips that can immediately help you improve your writing so you can communicate with clarity, influence your peers (and hopefully your boss), and reduce your stress when it’s time to put words on digital paper:

1.     Use simple sentences.

Run-on sentences and random thoughts strung together quickly handicap your writing and can create confusion resulting in inaction. Here’s an example of two emails saying the same thing:

“In response to today’s budgetary meeting outlining goals and actionable items relevant to our marketing strategy draft proposal pursuant to management’s strategic business program, please review and assess your department’s 1Q budgetary requirements going forward and provide me with your bottomline request ASAP today, before COBD.”

“I need your first quarter marketing budget by 5pm today.”      

Which one of these messages do you think will get a faster response?

2.     Pay attention to punctuation.

Email and texting have helped foster a general disregard for punctuation these days and as a consequence people use it poorly or not at all, which can cause unintended confusion. Don’t believe me? Here’s the same sentence with two very different meanings:

“My partner arrived dead, last to the meeting.”

“My partner arrived dead last to the meeting.”

Punctuation is your friend. Use it well.

3.     Use plain language.

Think in terms of “could my mother understand this?” when you sit down to write something. This will work wonders on a business plan, a marketing strategy report, even everyday e-mails. Purge your writing of the trendy and the corporate and use, as my old journalism professor used to say, a nickel word instead of a twenty-five-center. Those of you who have been in and around the corporate world for any length of time know exactly what I am talking about. Fuzzy, convoluted industry weirdspeak like “authoring solutions-based metrics." Avoid confusing industry buzzwords whenever possible. If your writing causes your readers to lunge for a glossary, think hard about a better way to say it. And if you’ve used words such as “implementation”, “impacting”, and “facilitate” within the last thirty days I have two words for you: STOP IT.

4.     Use an active voice.

This simple tip is a great way to quickly punch up your writing. Instead of using the dreary passive voice, use the livelier active voice. Notice the difference in this example:

Passive:

The car was driven by me.

Active:

I drove the car.

5.     Tell the whole story.

Everything you write should have a beginning and an end with everything else following logically between. It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed at how many people violate this simple rule. We’ve all received those disjointed emails where it seems as if you’re missing a chunk of the message, leaving you saying “huh?” Everything you write should be able to stand alone. Don’t take for granted that the reader knows what you’re talking about. Start at the beginning and end at the end.      

6.     Put everything in context.

If you’re writing a proposal, a report, a white paper, a piece of sales literature, or just a simple request for something, put it in context. Show why it’s important, what it means to the reader, what the result will be. Context adds value to what you write.

7.     Be conversational.

Does your writing often sound stilted or forced? That’s probably because you’re trying too hard. Relax. Write the way you speak. That doesn’t mean be sloppy or slangy, it simply means you should be more concerned with saying it clearly than saying it “properly.”  

8.     Write first, edit later.

Don’t try to make your writing perfect from the start. If you agonize over every word, you’ll never finish. You can always go back later and change things. Get your ideas down first, then go back and edit. You’ll be amazed at how much quicker and easier that is, once the actual writing is out of the way. And you may be surprised at how little you change because you weren’t second-guessing yourself while you were writing.

9.     Proofread. Then proofread again.

We all make mistakes. But proofreading gives you a chance to fix them before they see the light of day. Never trust computer spellchecking – it’s amazing how many weighs their are two spell things. 

10.  Reread.

Communications travel at the speed of light these days. So many people hit “send” without rereading what they’ve written. Resist the urge. Go get a cup of coffee, then come back and read what you’ve just written. A breath of fresh air may give you fresh insight into what you were trying to say. Perhaps the perfect phrase that was eluding you will pop up. Maybe a better, simpler way to present the idea will come to you. A tiny bit of procrastination can be a good thing.

So there you have it. Good writing is like golf – many people claim to be good at it, few really are. But if you use these ten simple tips, you’ll be well on your way to clear, concise, and compelling writing.

 

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