Whatever your career goals, take these steps to improve your writing skills now. It is what I call a career-enhancing technique. Being a good writer will give you a competitive advantage when a promotion opportunity opens up. You will be glad you invested time and energy to improve your writing skills.
Are you aware that blue chip businesses are spending more than $3 billion each year on remedial writing training? And the training is for people with a college degree. These are people who employers expected would know how to write when hired.
Being able to write clearly, concisely, and effectively is critical to your success. The further up the ladder you go, the more you have to write. Wherever you are, learn how to improve your writing skills now. You’ll be glad you did.
Your goal–always–is to produce documents that can be read, understood, and acted on the first time they’re read.
Improve Your Writing Skills: Think First!
Before you write a word, think.
- What are you writing?
- Who are you writing to?
- Why are you writing this message/report?
- What outcome do you want your writing to produce?
When I taught writing classes for the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), we preached this point. Thinking before you write saves you time and helps you communicate better —even with email.
Ask yourself these questions—before you start writing.
- What does your audience already know about the subject?
- What does your audience need to know?
- What does your audience NOT need to know about your subject? Don’t kill them with background information that’s not needed. Just because you know it, doesn’t mean your audience does.
- What jargon and technical terms are understood by all your readers?
- Is your audience expecting you to make a decision or recommendation? If so, be clear in how you word that thought and make it easy to find–don’t bury it in the middle of a paragraph.
Jot down your answers to these questions to guide you as your write.
Improve Your Writing Skills: Organize!
The top comment I hear from managers is “Why am I reading this thing?” Hear this again: It is your job to organize your information so the reader can read it once, understand it right away, and act on it. To reach that outcome, you have to focus on organization—even before you begin writing.
Before you begin writing, organize your information. It will make writing go faster for you—trust me. Here are some techniques to improve your writing skills by learning to organize information.
- Sticky notes
- Brain dump or free writing
- Mind mapping
- Talking it out
If you’re not familiar with mind mapping, these are the key points.
- Put one word (preferably) per line. Just capture the thought.
- Use curving lines and color—you create a graphic.
- Draw pictures
After you get all the ideas down, look for repetition or information that appears in more than one leg of the mind map. How are you going to handle that information?
Only after you’ve cleaned up any overlaps do you assign a hierarchy to the legs of the mind map.
Remember that this is not an essay like you wrote in high school or college. The information needs to be presented in an order that makes it easy for your reader to follow your message.
NOTE: This is vitally important because people do not read documents, even emails, word for word. They scan. You want to be sure they find your main point. Using subheads and bullet points makes it easier for a scanning reader to find the key points you want them to read.
Improve Your Writing Skills: Get Active!
The best way to ensure readability and improve your writing is to use active voice and avoid the passive. Don’t remember the difference? Here’s a refresher.
Active voice is when the subject of your sentence is the doer, the actor. The doer is doing whatever the verb states.
The chairman opened the meeting.
[subject “chairman,” verb “opened”]
Passive voice is when you use a form of the verb “to be,” usually followed by another verb and possibly the word “by” later in the sentence.
The meeting was opened by the chairman.
To improve your writing skills, look for passive voice and change it to active—usually by inverting the sentence. There are occasions when the reader doesn’t care who the “doer” is and passive voice is OK. However, do not fall into the trap of saying, “The type of writing we do here really requires passive voice.” Bull.
If you’re using Word, it will help you by pointing out where you use passive voice. Under Review, click on Spelling and Grammar check, then run it. Word will show you places where it believes you have used passive voice. Use that as a guide to decide if you need to change your sentence.