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 learned.
Organize Your Writing
Whether you are composing 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 1.
- If any action needs to be taken by the recipient, state that in your closing paragraph.
Some TipsAvoid 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 necessary information. 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 checkers. 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 day.