At work, we're writing to our colleagues more than ever. On top of email, we've got project management software, chat, note-taking apps, cloud-based project documents, and whole slew of other places where we write posts, comments, and updates every day.
Given how much of it we do, for most desk jobs, written communication at work is probably as important, if not more important, than how you interact in person. Even if you think you're already pretty good at writing emails, making Word docs, or using Slack, if you want to be more successful, writing is a fundamental skills you'll want to cultivate.
To improve written communication skills, all you need to learn are some flexible principles. This isn't about any kind of rigid adherence and memorization of grammatical and stylistic rules. Rather, it's about being aware of how your writing is being received, and making it as easy as possible for your co-workers to get what they need from written words.
In 2004 Jeff Bezos banned the use of PowerPoint at Amazon. He insisted on well-structured narrative text instead, because, he said, it “forces better thought and better understanding.”
[Good writing] forces better thought and better understanding.
Bezos recognized that, when executed well, written communication leads to more high-quality ideas because it enables critical scrutiny of these ideas, both for the writer and the audience.
But it’s not just internal memos that are important. It’s comment threads, Tweets, posts, instant messages, text messages, emails and more. Now more than ever, communication teams must use a strategic mix of various channels.
And knowing how to write and be understood on at least some of these channels is critical.
The real challenge with writing is not to be technically or stylistically perfect—the challenge is to communicate clearly. More specifically, your challenge with written communication follows these three Cs. You must be:
Being concise, clear, and considerate has gotten much harder with the rise of so many new channels for written communication. But why?
Think back to a recent project you were involved in.
What communication channels did you use to communicate with your colleagues, clients, and project stakeholders? Even a relatively simple project’s written communication might span across email chains, message threads, comments on a task, and project documents.
This creates a new kind of communication complexity.
Since your main challenge with written communication is to be clear, concise, and considerate of your audience, our tips are centered around those three areas.
To be a more concise writer follow the advice of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and “omit needless words”.
As Strunk and White explain, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.”
As it turns out, many common expressions violate the principle of omitting needless words. So following this rule requires diligence.
For example, in the sentence “He is a man who likes watching sports,” the phrase “he is a man who” can be rewritten as “he” without changing the meaning of the sentence.
When you proofread your writing, look for opportunities to remove words, sentences, or paragraphs without changing the meaning of your message.
To write well, you need to choose carefully when to communicate, how much information to provide, and in what form you should communicate.
For example, if you’re submitting a deliverable you created to a client or boss, you’ll need to provide the proper context to enable them to provide useful feedback.
At the same time, you don’t want to provide so much irrelevant contextual information that your reader becomes overwhelmed.
The American Press Institute showed that when the average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they are reading.
This doesn’t mean every sentence you write must be 14 words or less. But you should try to limit the number of sentences you write that are longer than 25 words.
An easy way to do this is to break up long sentences.
Take this wordy example.
"Burgundy is the smallest of the famous wine regions of France, and its greatest wines all come from a narrow strip of hills in eastern France.”
Make it easier to read by breaking up sentences:
“Burgundy is the smallest of the famous wine regions of France. Its greatest wines all come from a narrow strip of hills in eastern France.”
Another way to improve your writing is to avoid using a complex word when a simpler one will work. For example:
You shouldn’t expect your audience to remember all the background information relevant to your message. But you should expect, and allow time for, clarification.
So put yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask yourself:
What other information might your audience need to understand or react to your message? Do they have access to that information? What critical information should you reiterate to ensure your audience’s understanding?
Typically, the reason you write at work is to help someone else make a decision and/or take action. To be more considerate of your audience, structure your writing around those action items or decision points.
That way, your audience can focus any clarification questions around the information they need to take action.
Speaking of focusing on action items, try one of our free agenda templates to create a well-written, action-oriented agenda for any kind of meeting.
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Being hired, fired, promoted—and everything in between—often hinges on how you communicate with your co-workers.