Even if you don’t work in a communications department, the work-related writing you do (emails and memos) can have a sizable impact on your company, and also set you apart from your co-workers.
Why quality writing is important
A few days before teaching my first college class (a business writing course for mid-career managers), I sent my students an introductory email. I started the email with, “I really looking forward to meeting you all,” and included two more mistakes in the email.
On the first night of class, I asked the 20 students if they had received my email. I asked them if they noticed anything about it. After an awkward pause, one student said, “It had a bunch of mistakes in it.”
I asked, “What did that email make you think of me and my qualifications to teach a business writing class?” The students laughed and one said, “We passed the email on to each other and we thought you were an idiot!”
I then asked them what my email made them think about the school. The students replied that they were not impressed with the quality of what the college was offering.
“THIS is why you need to take a class on business writing,” I told my students. “Whether you’re in sales, marketing, IT or human resources, you’re going to have to write a variety of documents, and people will judge you and your company by how professional your emails, memos and other documents read.”
They were sold.
These nine simple tips will help you look more professional whenever you send business communications.
Start with a strong opening
Professional writers start their communications with a strong lead sentence, or lead paragraph. It tells the reader what’s coming, why it’s important and why they need to read what you’ve written. Avoid talking about yourself when you start a document, “For over 40 years, ABC company has…” or “I have worked for XYZ Corp. for 30 years and have been a valuable employee.” Offer a benefit to readers, such as, “Would you like to cut your shipping expenses by 30%?” or “Would you like a new office manager who can improve employee morale, customer service and staff communications?”
Use the right voice
Try to write in the active voice rather than the passive voice to make your point stronger. Don’t write, “An effective meeting was held by the marketing department.” Write, “The marketing department held an effective meeting.” Don’t write, “Savings of $5,000 will be realized by the IT department.” Write, “The IT department will save $5,000.”
Decide whether you want to use the second person “you” or the third person “they.” Using the second person makes your writing more personal and chatty. Using the third person makes your content sound more authoritative and objective.
Keep paragraphs short
Limit the content of your paragraphs to one idea. If you’re writing for the web, keep paragraphs to two or three sentences to make it easier to read on a mobile device.
Organize before you write
Journalists use the inverted pyramid style of writing, putting the most important fact in the first paragraph, the second-most important piece of information in the second paragraph, and so on. This is because many people don’t read entire articles. Before you begin writing a memo, report, email or proposal, list the main points you want to make, then rank them in order of importance.
Think like your reader
When you write business communications, you’re usually trying to help yourself or your company—but your audience doesn’t share that interest. People care about themselves. When you write, think about what your reader wants. What is her problem or opportunity? Once you address that in your document opening, then you can provide your solution to the problem or a way to take advantage of the opportunity. Always ask yourself, even when you’re sending an email, “Why is this important to my reader?”
Take advantage of online writing tools
After you’ve written your content and proofread it, use an online grammar checker to see how much passive voice you’ve used, run it through a free plagiarism checker and look for other grammar issues. Here is a list of 64 online writing tools you can use to help improve your business writing. Word processing programs such as Microsoft Word let you check spelling, grammar and readability—learn to use those tools.
Set it aside
After you’ve written something, set it aside for at least 30 minutes before sending it. Take time to read it a second time after it’s been out of your thoughts for a while. If possible, have someone else review it for you. If you’re sending an important email, don’t type it into your email client. Write it in a word processing program first so you can use proofing tools. You’ll also avoid losing your work if the email client crashes and avoid accidentally sending an incomplete document.
WRITING IN ALL CAPS MAKES YOUR WORDS DIFFICULT TO READ AND IRRITATES YOUR READERS. IT ALSO MAKES YOU LOOK EMOTIONAL.
Add a P.S.
When you write a letter, include a postscript (P.S.) to make one important idea stand out. A P.S. is so eye-catching many people read it first, before they read the rest of the letter.
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