You probably write on the job all the time: proposals to clients, memos to senior executives, a constant flow of emails to colleagues. But how can you ensure that your writing is as clear and effective as possible? How do you make your communications stand out?
Overworked managers with little time might think that improving their writing is a tedious or even frivolous exercise. But knowing how to fashion an interesting and intelligent sentence is essential to communicating effectively, winning business and setting yourself apart.
“As Marvin Swift memorably said, clear writing means clear thinking,” said Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “You can have all the great ideas in the world, and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” Luckily, everyone has the capacity to improve, says Bryan Garner, author of “The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. Effective writing ”is not a gift that you’re born with,“ he says. ”It’s a skill that you cultivate.”
Here’s how to write simply, clearly and precisely.
1) Think before you write. Before you put pen to paper or hands to keyboard, consider what you want to say. Ask yourself: What should my audience know or think after reading this email, proposal, or report? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, you’re moving too quickly.
2) Be direct. Make your point right up front. By succinctly presenting your main idea first, you save your reader time and sharpen your argument before diving into the bulk of your writing. When writing longer memos and proposals, Garner suggests stating the issue and proposed solution in “no more than 150 words” at the top of the first page. “Acquire a knack for summarizing,” he says. “If your opener is no good, then the whole piece of writing will be no good.”
3) Cut the fat. Don’t “use three words when one would do,” says Blackburn. Read your writing through critical eyes, and make sure that each word works toward your larger point. Cut every unnecessary word or sentence. There’s no need to say “general consensus of opinion,” for instance, when “consensus” will do.
4) Avoid jargon and $10 words. Business writing is full of industry-specific buzzwords and acronyms. And while these terms are sometimes unavoidable and can occasionally be helpful as shorthand, they often indicate lazy or cluttered thinking. Throw in too many, and your reader will assume you are on autopilot – or worse, not understand what you’re saying.
5) Read what you write. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Is your point clear and well structured? Are the sentences straightforward and concise? Blackburn suggests reading passages out loud. “That’s where those flaws reveal themselves: the gaps in your arguments, the clunky sentence, the section that’s two paragraphs too long,” she says. And don’t be afraid to ask a colleague or friend – or better yet, several colleagues and friends – to edit your work. Welcome their feedback; don’t resent it. 6) Practice every day. Garner suggests reading well-written material every day, and being attentive to word choice, sentence structure and flow. Most importantly, build time into your schedule for editing and revising. “Writing and reworking your own writing is where the change happens, and it’s not quick,” says Blackburn. “The time is well spent because good writers distinguish themselves on the job.”
(Carolyn O’Hara is a writer and editor based in New York City.)
© 2014 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate