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Communicating—In Writing

Writing without thinking is like shooting without aiming.
ARNOLD GLASGOW

Most job descriptions include a requirement for effective communication skills, both oral and written. Sadly, many people find it difficult to express their ideas on paper, and thus to communicate effectively both inside and outside their organizations. Here are some suggestions for improving your writing skills:

  1. Think before you write. Could what you need to communicate be better expressed verbally? The most important reasons for written documentation are: an important decision must be made; you are dealing with a complex issue; the material must be studied before a decision is made.

  2. Write your material in a logical sequence:

    • At the beginning, state the reason why it was written.

    • Next, especially in the case of an action memo, let all people who read the document know what is expected of them.

    • Finally, provide the information required by the readers.

  3. Be brief and to the point — your key ideas should stand out clearly.

  4. Begin by letting readers know the value of your note. Entice them with introductions such as "This report will reveal how the corporation can save up to $15 million!"

  5. Try to give a positive spin to your message. For example, you can make a statement such as "Company policy requires that you do not smoke in the building" a more positive statement by saying, "You are welcome to smoke in the courtyard."

  6. Show readers how the benefits will impact on them. Converting an "I" into a "you" can often do this. For example, "I know we can offer significant advantages over our competition" can be changed to "We would be pleased to demonstrate the benefits you will receive."

  7. Let your readers know at all times that you have a keen sense of what their needs are. This will motivate them to take the actions you require.

  8. Keep paragraphs short, especially the first one. If the material looks easy to read, the recipients will get into the meat of the document before they know it. Vary the length of paragraphs throughout the piece, but try to keep all of them relatively short.

  9. Avoid clogging your document with details. Save background and technical material for attachments or appendices. Alert your readers to their existence by referring to them: "See Attachment A."

  10. Use plain language and avoid jargon, unless it is part of your readers' normal vocabulary.

  11. Avoid repetition. Draw attention to important ideas by formatting and placement within the document.

  12. Send copies to relevant colleagues only. People who receive copies without expecting them will be confused and may suspect you of playing office politics.

  13. Model your writing on excellent examples. Make copies of writing that impresses you and keep them on file.

  14. Avoid gender bias in your writing. The following techniques are useful when dealing with the difficult "he/she" problem:

    • Use plural subjects. For example, "The manager should meet regularly with his salesmen" could be expressed as "Managers should meet regularly with their salespeople."

    • Use plural or neutral pronouns. For example, "No man is an island" could become "No one is an island," or even "We are not islands."

    • Use neutral nouns instead of singular pronouns. For example, "Ask him who knows" could become "Ask the person who knows."

    • Avoid possessive pronouns. For example, "The manager should tell his people" could be expressed as "The manager should tell staff."

  15. Write as if you are speaking with your colleagues. A conversational style is more approachable and readable than stilted, formal language.

  16. Read your work aloud to see if it sounds right. Make changes if necessary, and read it aloud again until it works.


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