The ability to express oneself clearly on paper and to write effective reports, memos, letters, and other business documents is one of a manager’s most important skills. But some managers find it difficult to write clearly, concisely, and convincingly. Others take far longer than necessary to complete a written assignment. No matter whether your task is a letter, memo, report or novel, you can become a better writer if you follow this advice…
1. Prepare yourself.
Before you begin to write, consider these three key issues:
- Know precisely the purpose of your writing task. You must first be clear about the purpose of your task. Ask yourself: What do I want the reader to think, do, or know? The more specific you can be with your answers, the easier it will be for you to plan your writing.
- Know your reader.
- Reading is a solo activity, so you must imagine you are writing to one reader at a time. Strike an appropriate balance between the formal and the casual approach. No matter how impressive your writing may seem to you, your reader will be the final judge.
- Know the image you want to project personally. Are you trying to be helpful, formal, objective, appreciative, apologetic, caring, confident…? Try to be whatever you want to be.
2. Plan your approach.
Organise your thoughts, ideas, and information before choosing words and constructing sentences. If you spend time planning and drafting an outline, particularly if you have to write something lengthy, you will eventually save considerable time and energy. So it’s essential first to assemble your ideas into a logical structure before attempting to clothe your ideas in words.
3. Write your first draft.
Having formed a clear picture of your reader, your purpose, and the initial outline of your document, you can now begin your first draft. It’s important to get something written as soon as possible, even though you might scrap it later. So don’t feel you must start at the beginning – if you find the beginning difficult, start somewhere else. The important thing at this stage is to get words on paper (or a computer screen). Focus here on what is said, not on how it is being said. Most people are too critical of themselves at this stage, and that criticism becomes a major obstacle. Trust the writing process more: it does not have to start out right, only end that way – and the next step helps to achieve that objective.
4. Polish your product.
Under no circumstances should you consider the first draft of your document to be the final version. Even the best of writers rework and revise their written material. The number of times you do so depends on your skill as a writer and the importance of the document. The more times you revisit your work, the tighter, more polished, and more effective it should become. Remember, good writing is really rewriting.
Here, then, are the strategies to help polish your draft to perfection:
- Leave the draft for a while before revising it. Revisiting the material ‘cold’ will help you see it from a reader’s perspective.
- Underline the main points to check that you have actually said everything you intended to say. You may well change the order of ideas once you see how they appear to the reader.
- Read it aloud. Anything you find awkward or tedious to speak will be equally so for your readers to read.
- Check the big words: if they’re not precise in meaning, replace them with shorter, clearer ones. Check every sentence: if it’s possible for a reader to get lost in one, break it down into shorter sentences. Check spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
- Criticise the content severely. Are the facts correct? Are they relevant? Do the conclusions follow logically? Can anything be left out? Have you countered any likely objections?
- Obtain criticism from a colleague if the task is important and if time permits.
5. Develop your own style.
Over time, you will refine your methods and create variations that make your style unique, as distinctive as your own personality. But you will do well to remember these basics:
- Be concise. Eliminate the unnecessary. Make every word count. Get to the point.
- Vary sentence length, structure, and beginnings. As a rule, keep sentences short.
- Use familiar, concrete words. Write to express, not impress.
- Write naturally, using the words you typically use when speaking.
- Convert sentences from passive to active voice.
- Use transition words to link ideas and increase readability – ‘In addition…’, ‘Thus…’, ‘Conversely…’, ‘Therefore…’
- Write for your reader, not for yourself.
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