“Writing is easy,” according to Mark Twain. “All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
Oh, if only it were that simple. Most of us have to write as part of our day-to-day work tasks, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for us. The process of taking thoughts from the brain to the written word can be deceptively complicated and frustrating. We want the audience to clearly understand the message, but ideas always seem to get lost in translation.
Additionally, writing can be a highly self-conscious act. We know others will read what we’ve written, and we’re always a little concerned that they’ll judge us on how well (or poorly) we’re able to communicate on the page. It’s nerve wracking.
The good news is that writing does get easier the more you do it; you feel more comfortable flexing those creative muscles and translating the things from your head to your page. Getting started may be tough, but there are things you can do to make your writing better. While writing may never be as easy as Twain jokingly claimed it is, it doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are eight tips to improve your writing.
- Read good writing.
Any genre will do, but if you’re specifically looking to improve your business writing, then reading news articles from reputable sources are usually a good choice, since they tell you everything you need to know in a limited number of column inches. Additionally, if there’s a colleague whose writing you respect, pay careful attention to what makes his or her writing so strong.
Our first drafts are often riddled with small errors that we know how to fix — we just don’t take the time to fix them. Before printing off a report or hitting send on that important email, take the time to read it through carefully. This is always easier to do if you look at a hard copy rather than a screen, and it’s always best if you leave some time between writing a draft and proofreading so you’ll approach it with fresh eyes. Asking a trusted colleague to proofread any important documents is also a good idea. Finally, if you’re not sure about anything related to grammar, punctuation, or mechanics, look it up! Purdue University’s online writing lab, usually referred to as the Purdue OWL (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/), is a great resource.
- Visualize your audience.
Who will be reading this? What do they already know, and what do they believe? Knowing this information will help you tailor your writing to your reader.
- Use your own voice.
Unless you’re in the legal field, don’t feel the need to use an overly formal tone in your writing. You can certainly use contractions, as well as the first person. (The caveat, of course, is that your writing should still sound professional.) For example, instead of writing, “This employee is of the opinion that the proposed solution will not be effective at this time,” you can simply say, “I don’t think this is the right solution.”
- Avoid jargon and overly complicated words and descriptions.
The goal of writing, especially business writing, is to be understood. It’s not to establish your insider status or show off the words you remember from your SAT study sessions all those years ago.
- Add a call to action.
What should people do with all of the information you’ve given them? Tell them.
- Aim for brevity.
People are busy, and while your ambitious co-worker may choose to read War and Peace when she’s away from work, most people usually don’t have the time for lengthy prose during business hours. When you’re writing for work, keep it short, sweet, and to the point.
- Cite your sources.
Unless you indicate otherwise, your reader will assume that anything you write is your own thought. If it’s not, you’ll want to say where you got the idea. If this sounds like something you had to do in an old English class, it is! In business writing, though, you can usually eliminate the formality of APA or MLA style and cite your source easily as part of a sentence. For example, instead of using footnotes or endnotes or parenthetical citations, you can write something like, “According to a New York Times article from December 2014, only 19% of college students earn a degree in four years.”