we will explore how to improve written communication. Read this article from the Harvard Business Review:
1. In your current position, how frequently do you need to communicate in writing?
2. Considering the points made in the article about good business writing, what do you need to do to improve?
3. How will your current writing ability hinder or help you achieve the position you aspire to reach?
4. How important do you think written communication will be to help you achieve the position you aspire to reach?
How to Improve Your Business
by Carolyn O’Hara
November 20, 2014
You probably write on the job all the time: proposals to clients,
memos to senior executives, a constant flow of emails to
colleagues. But how can you ensure that your writing is as clear
and effective as possible? How do you make your
communications stand out?
What the Experts Say
Overworked managers with little time might think that improving
their writing is a tedious or even frivolous exercise. But knowing
how to fashion an interesting and intelligent sentence is essential
to communicating effectively, winning business, and setting
yourself apart. “As Marvin Swift memorably said, clear writing
means clear thinking,” said Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in
managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of
Management. “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if
you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” Luckily,
everyone has the capacity to improve, says Bryan Garner, author
of The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. Effective writing “is
not a gift that you’re born with,” he says. “It’s a skill that you
cultivate.” Here’s how to write simply, clearly, and precisely.
Think before you write
Before you put pen to paper or hands to keyboard, consider what
you want to say. “The mistake that many people make is they start
writing prematurely,” says Garner. “They work out the thoughts as
they’re writing, which makes their writing less structured,
meandering, and repetitive.” Ask yourself: What should my
audience know or think after reading this email, proposal, or
report? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, you’re moving too
quickly. “Step back and spend more time collecting your
thoughts,” Blackburn advises.
Make your point right up front. Many people find that the writing
style and structure they developed in school doesn’t work as well
in the business world. “One of the great diseases of business
writing is postponing the message to the middle part of the
writing,” says Garner. By succinctly presenting your main idea
first, you save your reader time and sharpen your argument
before diving into the bulk of your writing. When writing longer
memos and proposals, Garner suggests stating the issue and
proposed solution in “no more than 150 words” at the top of the
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first page. “Acquire a knack for summarizing,” he says. “If your
opener is no good, then the whole piece of writing will be no
Cut the fat
Don’t “use three words when one
would do,” says Blackburn. Read
your writing through critical
eyes, and make sure that each
word works toward your larger
point. Cut every unnecessary
word or sentence. There’s no
need to say “general consensus of opinion,” for instance, when
“consensus” will do. “The minute readers feel that a piece of
writing is verbose they start tuning out,” says Garner. He suggests
deleting prepositions (point of view becomes viewpoint); replacing
–ion words with action verbs (provided protection to becomes
protected); using contractions (don’t instead of do not and we’re
instead of we are); and swapping is, are, was and were with
stronger verbs (indicates rather than is indicative of).
Avoid jargon and $10 words
Business writing is full of industry-specific buzzwords and
acronyms. And while these terms are sometimes unavoidable and
can occasionally be helpful as shorthand, they often indicate lazy
or cluttered thinking. Throw in too many, and your reader will
assume you are on autopilot — or worse, not understand what
you’re saying. “Jargon doesn’t add any value,” says Blackburn, but
“clarity and conciseness never go out of style.” Garner suggests
creating a “buzzword blacklist” of words to avoid, including terms
like “actionable,” “core competency,” “impactful,” and
“incentivize.” You should also avoid using grandiose language.
Writers often mistakenly believe using a big word when a simple
one will do is a sign of intelligence. It’s not.
Read what you write
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Is your point clear and well
structured? Are the sentences straightforward and concise?
Blackburn suggests reading passages out loud. “That’s where
those flaws reveal themselves: the gaps in your arguments, the
clunky sentence, the section that’s two paragraphs too long,” she
says. And don’t be afraid to ask a colleague or friend — or better
yet, several colleagues and friends — to edit your work. Welcome
their feedback; don’t resent it. “Editing is an act of friendship,”
says Garner. “It is not an act of aggression.”
Practice every day
“Writing is a skill,” says Blackburn, “and skills improve with
practice.” Garner suggests reading well-written material every
day, and being attentive to word choice, sentence structure, and
flow. “Start paying attention to the style of The Wall Street
Journal,” he says. Invest in a guide to style and grammar for
reference — Garner recommends Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
Most importantly, build time into your schedule for editing and
revising. “Writing and reworking your own writing is where the
change happens, and it’s not quick,” says Blackburn. “The time is
well spent because good writers distinguish themselves on the
Principles to Remember:
Plan out what you will say to make your writing more direct and
Use words sparingly and keep sentences short and to the point.
Avoid jargon and “fancy” words. Strive for clarity instead.
Argue that you simply can’t write. Anyone can become a better
writer with practice.
Pretend that your first draft is perfect, or even passable. Every
document can be improved.
Bury your argument. Present your main idea as soon as
Case study #1: Don’t be afraid to share
When David McCombie began working as a management
consultant at McKinsey & Company, he immediately realized that
the writing style he’d honed at Harvard Law School wasn’t well
suited for executive-level communications. “It was the structure
of my arguments,” David says. “I was getting feedback that I
needed to get to the point more quickly.”
With legal or academic writing, “you’re going to generally start
with building up the case, and put the main point all the way at
the end,” he says. “But in business communications, it’s best to
start with your conclusion first.”
To make his writing more direct and effective, David asked
several senior colleagues for all of their past presentations and
reports so that he could mimic key elements of their format and
style. He also copied trusted colleagues who were particularly
skilled communicators on important emails and asked for their
David has carried these practices to the private equity firm he
founded in Miami, the McCombie Group. “I send anything that’s
important to my partner and he reads it over,” David says, adding
that he knows better than to take the edits personally. “We talk
about whether there is a better way to convey an idea, how we can
be more succinct.”
Improving his writing has had a direct effect on David’s ability to
become an influential voice in his field. He’s currently writing a
book on his private equity firm’s niche market, The Family Office
Practitioner’s Guide to Direct Investments.
“Even if I knew good business writing from the get-go, I think
continually improving your writing and taking it to the next level
is absolutely key to success,” David says. “The more you do it, the
easier it becomes.”
Case study #2: Study good writing
Tim Glowa had already built a successful career as a strategic
marketing consultant when he decided to set his ambitions a little
higher. “I wanted to be perceived as a thought leader,” Tim says,
“and to do that, I needed to have a point of view and I needed to
put that point of view out in public.”
He knew that crafting smart, digestible op-eds and research
papers was key to improving his professional reputation. His
writing was already well received by colleagues and peers but
much of his experience was rooted in academic writing. So he
began reading business publications, like McKinsey Quarterly, for
style. “I studied how they communicate,” Tim says, “and made an
effort to make my own writing more direct and concise.”
He also incorporated an outlining ritual into his writing. Before
writing reports and memos, he now begins with a short outline of
the three main objectives. “You can’t just start typing and expect
to go somewhere,” he says. “That’s like going for a walk and not
knowing where the destination is.”
Tim, now the cofounder of a marketing analytics firm called Bug
Insights, believes the efforts have made him a more effective
communicator, improving not just his longer writings, but his
emails and even his voicemails. “It filters down into virtually all
my communication,” he says. And his work is finding an
audience. Several of his papers have been downloaded more than
100,000 times, and a Fortune 50 company recently used one of his
papers in an internal training and development program.
Tim is gratified at his progress, but says he’s not going to stop
putting in the extra effort. “You have to work at it,” he says.
“Anytime you develop a new skill, you have to study it.”
Carolyn O’Hara is a writer and editor based in
New York City. She’s worked at The Week, PBS
NewsHour, and Foreign Policy. Follow her on
Twitter at @carolynohara1.