Last week, a single typo took down many websites that rely on Amazon’s Cloud Services. We all make mistakes. And yet, written communications matter. Increasingly, we see busy people, with too little time to read it all or spend time proofing their work. We now get written messages in many different formats, some of which use auto-correcting features that can drive us crazy or make our life easier. In these fast-paced days, when perfectionism is the enemy of completion, what small steps can we take to improve our written communications?
Start with an objective.
Ask yourself why you are writing the document. Is it for historical preservation, audit documentation, or an attempt to persuade someone to change his or her mind on a question? Do you just need an answer to a question, or want a favor? I keep reminding myself to start with my objective in mind. And when I’m about finished I have to remember to ask myself if I’ve met my objective. Sometimes, it can feel like the process of writing an email can cause me to re-think my objective.
The more words you write in that email, letter, executive summary, or training manual, the less words you will need to proof. So, remove the unnecessary verbiage. This is particularly hard for some of us. I think by writing, and I frequently find myself writing an email to someone that explains something, and then, deciding that my written explanation is unnecessary. What I really need is a one or two sentence email that moves on to the next question. Had I sent the lengthy explanation and then finished with my one or two sentences about the next question, it would likely have been missed by the recipient.
Use shorter paragraphs.
In these days of online reading and writing, people don’t read like they used to. They scan. So opt for shorter paragraphs. I think it’s helpful to start a new paragraph when you have something important to say. Otherwise, when it is buried in the middle of a paragraph, people are likely to miss it.
Use bullets, different fonts, and numbered lists when appropriate.
Depending on what you are writing, there may be the opportunity to highlight specific texts by using a larger font or a different color. You may be able to break up long sections by inserting a bulleted list. Or, if you have a set of questions to be answered, you may want to finish with a numbered list of the questions. Some writings are more formal than others.
Use subject lines effectively.
On emails, use the subject line to tell your reader what you need. Do you ever get to the end of an email and wonder what you are supposed to do? It’s a classic problem. If we all spent a little extra time when we are crafting our emails, and asked ourselves what we expect the reader to do with this information, that would be a start. Why not put in your subject line: Action, help, or advice needed, Need response by date, or FYI only?
On business letters the subject line should contain sufficient information to allow an administrative assistant to route the letter to the appropriate person.
Choose words carefully.
In a world of fake news and bitter divisiveness, we all need to choose words carefully. This applies in the business world, as well as the journalism world. Some words simply carry more power than others, but I would submit that restraint might sometimes be needed. For example, if you supervise people and are trying to get them to pay more attention to their invoice reports, it is unhelpful to threaten jail time (yes, that’s been done). Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and ask how the reader will hear what you’ve written. It takes more time, but it may save a lot of consternation in the end.
Proof your writings carefully.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but I read so many emails that are loaded with grammar mistakes, punctuation that confuses the issue, and spelling errors that make interpretation nearly impossible. If the stakes are high, consider asking someone else to proof your work. To find spelling errors, try reading your work backwards. Sometimes when we read, we focus so much on content and flow that we miss spelling mistakes. Spell check can be helpful, but it’s not perfect.
Were these tips on improving written communications helpful? Share your thoughts in a comment.