Stop and think about how many emails you write each day at work. According to a study conducted by Carleton University, professionals spend one-third of their time at work reading and answering emails. You might spend more than this, or less, but chances are, a significant portion of your day is spent writing something.
Now think about how much time you’ve wasted trying to decipher an email or report that’s poorly written. Not only is it frustrating and annoying to read, but bad writing can also lead to serious miscommunications, lost opportunities, or even workplace accidents.
The point here is that good writing skills are valuable in a number of ways. And, taking time to improve yours could pay significant dividends throughout your career. Let’s look at several techniques you can use to improve your business writing skills.
The Value of Solid Writing Skills
Good writing is essential in the workforce for a number of reasons.
First, being a good writer helps you stand out from the crowd and improves your chances for a promotion or raise. It can help convince your boss to take action on projects and ideas you’re passionate about. Good writing makes you appear more intelligent, credible, and professional. It helps avoid confusion and misinterpretation, build trust and rapport with colleagues, and win clients.
Good writing is especially important because of our increased use of social media. We’ve all seen professionals on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook misspell words or use a word incorrectly. Not only is this embarrassing when it happens to you, but it can also affect your reputation and credibility in the future.
Your writing is one of the primary mediums in which you will be judged throughout your life. The emails, texts, and reports you send on a daily basis are a physical representation, and record, of you. Over time, these representations build your reputation and impact the relationships you need to thrive in your career.
Your writing communicates your thoughts, and it’s important that those thoughts are conveyed in the clearest, most eloquent way possible.
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing.”
Whether you’re an entrepreneur who needs to write a great press release, a manager writing daily emails to a busy team, or someone searching for a new job who needs to write a winning cover letter, good communication skills are a must. Words matter in life, and you’ll benefit greatly from knowing how to use them effectively.
How to Improve Your Writing Skills
Great writing takes time and practice. As iconic businessman David Ogilvy said, “Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”
There are several ways you can quickly make improvements to your own writing.
1. Think Before You Start Writing
Before you start writing anything, stop and think about what you want and need to say. Ask yourself, “What does this person need to know or understand after reading this email?”
You can also use the “5 Ws + H” that all journalists use when crafting their work:
- Who: Who is my audience?
- What: What do they need to know?
- When: When does this apply, when did this happen, or when do they need to know it by?
- Where: Where is this happening?
- Why: Why do they need this information?
- How: How should they use this information?
You also need to ask yourself, “Do I really need to send this email?”
Professionals in every sector are inundated with emails every day, many of which are unnecessary. Save yourself and your reader time by making sure that each email you send is truly necessary and relevant.
2. Keep It Short
Once you’ve identified what you need to say, get to the point quickly. People are always pressed for time, and they will appreciate your brevity.
Need more convincing? Stop and think about how frustrated you feel after reading an email that’s three times longer than it needs to be, with the main points buried way at the bottom. It’s a waste of time and energy, right?
Don’t make your audience go through this – be brief.
It can help to think about how people read. Novelist Elmore Leonard offers some succinct but great advice when he says, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Generally, this means long paragraphs that have more to do with what you want to say than what the reader needs to hear. Always keep your reader in mind.
If you find that you can’t write an email that’s less than half a page long, then email isn’t the best way to communicate this information. Instead, call the person and talk to them directly.
3. Avoid Pretentious Words
In writing, your goal is to be clear and direct. If your reader has to use Google to decipher what you’re trying to say, they’re going to feel alienated and annoyed.
Mark Twain once said, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” Avoid the temptation to use flowery, pretentious words to sound smarter. Stick with the fifty-cent words.
In the same vein, avoid jargon whenever possible. Jargon often makes you sound pretentious, and it can further alienate your reader. Instead, write the way you talk. Keep it natural and direct.
4. Use the Active Voice
Active sentences are direct, bold, and more interesting than passive sentences. Passive sentences are weak and wordy; they’re like a limp handshake. Your writing will improve dramatically if you strive to use active sentences whenever possible.
For example, look at the two sentences below:
- The cat scratched the woman.
- The woman was scratched by the cat.
The first sentence is written in the active voice. It’s clear and direct. The second sentence is passive.
In an active sentence, the subject performs the action of the verb. In a passive sentence, the subject is letting the action happen to them. Here’s another simple example:
- The golfer hit the ball.
- The ball was hit by the golfer.
In the first sentence, the subject (the golfer) performs the action (hit the ball). In the second sentence, the subject (the golfer) comes after the verb; it’s receiving the action.
To spot the passive voice, look for forms of the verb “to be,” such as “will” or “was,” in front of a verb. For example, “The meeting will be held at 8pm,” is passive. Instead, say, “The meeting is at 8pm.”
5. Always Be Professional
Sometimes it’s tempting to throw in a joke or include some office gossip in an email. However, these add-ins don’t contribute to your message and can negatively affect your reputation. They’re also easily misunderstood.
Yes, you need to be authentic and to let your voice shine through in your writing. But you also need to stay professional; it’s a balancing act. A good way to check the appropriateness of your content is to ask, “Would I be comfortable with this if it was on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow morning?” If this makes you cringe, do some editing.
6. Clarify Your Call to Action
Your business communications are sent with a purpose; it’s rare that you’ll write an email that’s purely informational. Chances are, you need your reader to do something: call you back, give you more information, confirm their presence at a meeting, and so on.
Don’t leave it up to your reader to figure out what you want them to do with this information. Spell it out, and be specific. For example:
- Please send back any edits by 5pm Tuesday.
- Please call this client back by Friday to resolve the issue.
Be clear about what you want and you’ll probably find you get better results from your readers.
Pro Tip: Keep in mind that if you need immediate action on something, talk to the recipient in person. Get up from your desk and go to their office, or call them on the phone. Writing is an important medium, but nothing beats an in-person conversation when you need to get something done.
7. Use Your Email Subject Line Appropriately
Your email’s subject line is a powerful tool; think of it as the headline for your email. A headline’s job is to make sure the body gets read. To do this, headlines need to be short, direct, powerful, and specific.
For example, look at the two email subject lines below:
- Monday’s Meeting
- Attending Monday, Oct. 14’s 2pm Quarterly Reports Meeting
The first subject line is vague and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Which Monday meeting? What is the meeting about? Do I even need to know about this meeting?
The second subject line is much more specific, and thus more likely to be opened and read quickly. It communicates which meeting the author is talking about, when it is, and what you might need when attending this particular meeting.
Never leave your email subject line blank. Email filters often categorize blank subject lines as spam, so fill it out to avoid having your email missed.
Pro Tip: If you only need to ask a simple question, use the End of Message (EOM) technique. Simply write your question in the email subject line and add “EOM” at the end. This saves your reader time because they can quickly reply without having to read more superfluous text.
For example, your subject line might say, “Will you be attending this Monday’s 2pm meeting? EOM.”
Make sure your recipients know what EOM means before using this technique. Then, ideally they’ll reply in their return email’s subject line something like, “Yes, I’ll be there. EOM.”
8. Stick to One Topic in Emails
Keep your emails focused on one specific point or idea whenever possible. If you need to address another topic, write a separate email. Focusing on one topic per email gives your reader time to process what you’re saying and respond directly. It also helps them organize their emails more efficiently and find archived emails faster.
For example, below is an example of an email that’s covering too many topics:
Email Subject Line: Monday’s Meeting
Body: Hi Steve,
Thanks for all your work on the quarterly reports last week. You did a nice job! I just think we need to shorten up the intro, but other than that it’s great.
I was writing to see if you’d be attending this Monday’s meeting. If so, could you please bring a copy of your initial quarterly report draft? I’d like to show it to Susan.
Also, did you ever touch base with Al Thompson in Syracuse? He had some complaints about his last shipment and we need to make sure those are addressed. Let me know how this turns out.
Stop and think about how many things Steve has been asked to address in this email.
First, he has to figure out if Jim wants him to edit the intro, or if Jim is going to do it himself; it’s not clear. He then has to confirm he’ll be at Monday’s meeting, and also remember to bring the report draft. Last, he has to address those customer complaints and tell Jim what happened.
The email has some important reminders in it, and Steve might want to save it. But the headline simply says, “Monday’s Meeting.” If he wants to save it as a reminder to address those customer complaints, the headline has nothing to do with the actual subject. He’ll have to remember that the reminder to address the customer complaints was in the email titled “Monday’s Meeting.”
Do your readers a favor and make things as easy as possible for them. Keep it simple with one topic per email.
9. Never Use Email to Deliver Bad News
Never use email to deliver bad news. If you need to lay off someone on your team, or provide feedback that will sound less than rosy, do it in person. It’s easy for misunderstandings to occur through email, a prospect that’s amplified when you use email to deliver bad news. In person, you can communicate with compassion and empathy, and you can use your body language and vocal tone to further convey your sincerity and intentions. This is something you just can’t do through email.
10. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
Grammar and spelling mistakes are embarrassing, and they hurt your credibility. Sure, you can rely on spellcheck tools, but they don’t catch everything, especially words that are used out of context.
Once you’re finished writing, proofread it immediately. And, whenever possible, put it away and read it again a few hours (or a few days) later. Giving yourself some distance from the writing will help you spot mistakes you might have missed on the first read-through.
Pro Tip: When proofreading, read each sentence carefully. Take the advice of George Orwell, who states, “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
If the email or report is particularly important, give it to a trusted friend or colleague to read over before you send it to its intended audience. A fresh pair of eyes might spot additional mistakes that you missed.
Pro Tip: If you find you need additional help with your business writing, use a service like Grammarly, which scans your text and identifies both simple and complex grammar mistakes (including correctly spelled words used in the wrong context). You also get explanations for each mistake so that you can improve your writing in the future.
Anyone can learn to be a better writer, and the best way to improve your own writing is to practice. The more you write, the better you’ll get. You can also consider taking a free online business writing course through Coursera. The class was created by the University of Colorado-Boulder and is free if you audit.
What mistakes do you make most often in your business writing? What do you think you do well?