These days, SO much of what we communicate happens in writing. And believe it or not, writing is one of those things that can actually change people’s impression of you. Great writing can be a chance to reset a less-than-great first impression, and an opportunity to lower someone’s opinion of you. Nailing your writing is crucial. Sadly, far too many of us learned a very stilted, overly formal kind of writing in school, and it doesn’t do much to make our communications actually better.
Did you know that one of the modern goals of “formal” technical writing is to make your writing easier for machines to translate into different languages? Yup. You’re writing for a machine, not for the end reader, and that can hurt.
So let’s go through some basics, and then conduct a quick skill check to see where you’re at.
FIRST, let’s recognize that the purpose of language is to communicate ideas, facts, and concepts to each other. Any writing (or speaking) that accomplishes that goal is “good.” So 100% accurate grammar isn’t necessarily a must-have, so long as you’re getting your point across. That said, know your audience. Sending an email to your 50 year-old CEO and littering it with LOLs and emoji might not be anticipating your audience quite right. You see, language is all about communicating thoughts, but you have to use the language of your audience.
SECOND, use the tolls at your disposable. Autocorrect can be a great thing, but as many of us have seen, it can guess wrong sometimes. A good spell check, a quick grammar check, and above all a personal read-through can help make sure your writing what your intention. (See what I mean?)
THIRD, and I can’t stress this enough, try to write like you talk. Writing should, in most cases, not only convey thoughts and facts, but also convey a sense of you and your personality. One quick tip is to drop passive voice. For example, instead of writing a stilted phrase like, “The goal is achieved by continuously improving,” write more actively, as in, “We achieve our goal through continuous improvement.”
FOURTH, try to drop corporate-speak. Ask, for example, is a verb, not a noun. Don’t write (or say), “The ask is that we do blah blah blah.” Write, “The request is that we do blah blah blah.” Request is both a noun and a verb. Don’t refer to things as “issues” when they’re actually problems.
(In my Slack messages, I’ll actually write things like “the ask request is for us to bring this content online within the week,” actually using strikethrough just to snakily point out that ask isn’t a noun.)
So let’s try a quick exercise. You’ve been asked to implement something new at work—a process, a technology, or something else. Imagine what that might be for a moment. Now, write up a brief e-mail that’s intended to go out to your entire team, explaining the timing of the new process along with the benefits of it. Keep it to just two or three paragraphs.
Go ahead. It’s important that you actually do it before you continue with this article. Trust me.
Now read it aloud.
How’s it sound? Does it sound like you? Does it come across the way you want to be heard? If not… rewrite, and repeat. When you’re finally satisfied, have a family member or coworker read what you’ve written. Let them know it’s purely fictional, of course, and that you’re interested in what they think of the tone, the phrasing, and the pacing.
The write-then-read exercise is actually a great one to perform now and again, and a way to bring your actual personality into your writing. Why is that important?
Most humans don’t actually relate well to machines. Our brains have thousands of years of body language interpretation built in. We constantly scan for subtle changes in skin color, minor speech patterns, eye movement, and so on. It’s a fundamental part of the tribe-building mechanisms in our brains, and how we relate to one another. In writing of course, you lose all that. By attempting to write more like a human, and more like yourself, and less like a machine, you’re starting to bring some of that human contact back into your writing. You’re letting people relate to you through your writing. When we relate to one another, we tend to be more receptive to each others’ thoughts and ideas, making your writing more effective.
So give it a shot: this week, do a quiet read-through on everything you write, before you send it. That applies to instant messages as well as emails, all the way up to any big documents you author. See if your writing changes as a result, and see if people find your writing to be more personable and effective.