Magazine excerpt: The art of the written word
Grace Carter provides her top tips for improving your business writing skills.
Writing is a big part of business, and it’s important for people in L&D to be competent writers. Good writing skills are integral to clear communication, so it’s always a good idea to put work into developing your business writing skills.
This doesn’t have to be difficult; by adjusting a few things and learning a few strategies, you can make a big difference to the quality of your writing. Use these eight tips to improve your business writing skills.
Keep your readers in mind
Before you write anything, consider how much your reader cares about the subject, how much they know about it, and why they’re reading it. Usually there will be a varying degree of interest in what you’re writing, so you should make getting their attention and getting your point across quickly a priority.
“Writing in plain English is fine, but if your writing is aimed at a specific group of people with shared industry knowledge, you can use language you wouldn’t use for a general audience. Avoid burying your point; meet their expectations and give them the information they need,” recommends Ina Ramirez, business writer at Paper Fellows.
Write a good subject line
Email is something everyone in the business world uses on a daily basis, but a lot of people don’t think of it as writing. Writing well is important in email, and so is how you craft an email subject line. Make your subject lines specific, and provide a few details so the recipient knows what you’re talking about.
Differentiate between the information you’re trying to communicate and the words you use to do that. Are you struggling because your information is flawed, lacking or poorly grouped?
If you send out an email with the subject line 'Thursday’s meeting' you are being too vague. What is the meeting about, and what time is it? People often have more than one meeting in a day, so be specific in your headline.
Identify weaknesses and strengths
Before you can improve your business writing, you must identify your weak points. Differentiate between the information you’re trying to communicate and the words you use to do that. Are you struggling because your information is flawed, lacking or poorly grouped? Or is your substance fine, but your syntax is poor?
It’s hard to be objective towards your own writing, so consider asking a colleague for their opinion, or taking a business writing course to find out where you need improvement.
Use the active voice
Active voice sentences are more direct and interesting than passive voice sentences. When using the active voice, the subject performs the verb, rather than having the action done to them. “The player kicked the ball” is active voice; “the ball was kicked by the player” is passive.
Sentences written in the passive voice use more words and generally don’t read as decisively. They’re the literary equivalent of a weak handshake.
Follow the writing process
The writing process isn’t just for students writing essays; people in L&D can use it as well. Following a process can make writing feel more approachable. Start by establishing your reason for writing, and then gather the information you’ll need to do it.
Sketch out a quick outline that includes your key points. Write a rough draft and then edit; watching out for sentences that are unclear or have a bad flow. Finally, proofread your writing for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Don’t rely on your word processor to catch everything, go over it yourself.
Be considerate of people’s time, so get to your point quickly and keep your message brief. “You’ve probably read more than a few emails and other pieces of writing that were much longer than necessary. It’s annoying and feels like the person is stealing your time for no good reason.
Think about what the recipient actually wants and needs to hear, and cut out the rest. Sometimes it’s just better to call or tell someone in person, if you can’t keep it short,” advises Robert Adams, copywriter at Australian Help.
You should also avoid using pretentious and unnecessarily long or uncommon words. Your goal is clear communication, not impressing your colleagues with your knowledge of the English language.
Consider different attitudes and points of view
When you work in L&D you meet lots of people with a variety of attitudes and opinions. Different people can take away different meanings from the same piece of writing, so keep this in mind when making word choices.
Try and write in a way that is in sync with the point of view of your intended audience; this way you’re more likely to get a positive response. Writing in a way that people relate to creates trust, and is a good way to increase the chances that they will support your suggestion or plan, or comply with something you’re asking of them.
Business writing is an important skill, but far too many L&D professionals consider it an afterthought. Communication is key when you’re trying to instruct people, so making your writing more effective is well worth any L&D professional’s time. Use these tips to improve your business writing.
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