8 exercises for strengthening your business writing
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Writing skills are essential for today's business professionals. Don't believe me? Consider this: A study from data services provider SunGard found that approximately 90 percent of business communications are now via electronic text. That's right, whether you're an accountant, architect, advisor or administrator, writing is a key part of your job.
Now consider this: A study from the American Management Association found that strong writing skills yield a 30 to 50 percent savings in writing time and up to a 50 percent savings in reading time. How much time did you spend last month writing emails, reports, proposals or marketing materials — and how much time did people spend reading them? Yep, it's a lot.
That’s why I'm discussing eight easy exercises for strengthening your writing muscle. Try them. Your readers will appreciate it. On to the list:
1. Embrace your inner tweet
Ever have to describe yourself or your company in 50 words or less (or some other arbitrary limit)? It's hard, right? But the beauty of word and character limits is that they force us to be more direct and reader-focused. Your 50 words likely convey as much as the 200-plus words you would use without the limit. And they're more concise.
Exercise: Pick one email a day and give yourself a word limit. Not sure what limit to set? Look back at an email on a similar topic. Count the words and halve the total. There's your word limit. Do it enough days in a row, and you'll be writing shorter, crisper documents in no time.
2. Shelve your interior monologue
We're all taught how to outline in grade school. So why have most business professionals long abandoned the practice? For most, the answer is time. Ironically, time is exactly what is wasted when using a stream-of-consciousness approach to writing.
If you list and prioritize your thoughts up front, you reduce the time normally spent writing and revising. You also avoid wasting readers' time with confusing and unorganized messages, as well as the time you then spend clarifying the message. See how the snowball starts? A little preparation goes a long way.
Exercise: When approaching your next document or email, begin by listing your key points. Rearrange these points in order from most to least important, and add a heading above each. Got it? Now rewrite your first key point as a sentence, list out the supporting details below it and arrange the details in order of importance. (Often details can be left as a bulleted list.)
Do the same for your other key points. Voilà! Need to trim? Easy. Start at the bottom and work your way up.
3. Make a checklist, check it twice
Most of us read over our work before clicking the send or print button (if you don’t, start today), but are we looking for the right things? Make sure by using an editing checklist. Don't worry, you don't need six hours and a 20-page checklist to edit three paragraphs. Use a simple checklist with 10 to 15 items, like this one from the University of Wisconsin Writing Center.
Exercise: Download a checklist, print it on small piece of paper, and tape it to the left edge of your monitor. For the next two weeks, use the list each time you finish writing a document or longish email. Checking for common errors will quickly become second nature, and you'll find a marked improvement in your initial drafts.
4. Burn your thesaurus
Don't actually burn your thesaurus. Just avoid the temptation to use it excessively. For many writers, the thesaurus is a crutch — their go-to solution for replacing "common" words with more "descriptive" ones.
Bad idea. Not all synonyms are the same, and most have subtle differences in meaning and connotation. Besides, good business writing is not about using big words or trying to sound smart. It's about being clear, concise and relatable.
Thesaurus words often create slow, choppy writing overrun with extra syllables and unnecessary adjectives. Use your natural word choices. Chances are they're also natural for your reader.
Exercise: For the next month, let your thesaurus collect dust. You'll speed up your writing process and develop a stronger, unique voice. If you're really stuck, talk out the sentence with someone. If you're still stuck, only use a thesaurus word if you'd use it in conversation, it provides more clarity than your original word, and it sounds normal when read aloud.
5. Read aloud
Speaking of reading aloud, you may feel weird doing it, but it works. Reading aloud lets your brain process information in a different way, giving more attention to flow, tone, cadence and transitions. The order of information is also amplified, allowing you to realize gaps in your explanation.
Finally, reading aloud lets you identify small errors, such as grammatical mistakes and missing words. Try it. You'll be amazed how much you miss when reading on paper or a computer screen.
Exercise: The next time you finish writing a document, find a quiet place without co-workers (trust me, it's annoying to listen to) and slowly read your document aloud. If you can't find a quiet place, connect headphones to your computer and open the document in a program with an audio function. For instance, newer versions of Adobe Acrobat have a Read Out Loud function under the View menu. Works like a charm.
6. Treat your writing like a steak
Let your writing rest once it's done. The reason is simple: when editing immediately after writing, your brain tends to process what you intended to convey, not what you actually wrote. Therefore, it may ignore embarrassing typos or errors in grammar and tone. Nobody wants that. So detach yourself for a while. Once you come back, you'll be ready to break out that red pen, perfect your masterpiece and bask in your brilliance.
Exercise: The next time you have to write an important report, proposal or marketing document, if possible, plan to finish the draft a day early. Once you finish, go through your usual review process, including reading aloud and using an editing checklist, then sleep on it. The next morning, repeat your review process. The fresh perspective will make a big difference.
7. Use that new-fangled technology
Today's word processing programs have all sorts of handy tools. Use them, especially spelling, grammar and readability checkers. Most people are familiar with and use automated spelling and grammar checkers (yes, grammar checkers occasionally have a mind of their own, but they’re still useful).
Readability tools, on the other hand, are hidden gems. They help you determine how difficult your content is to read by providing information like words per sentence, percentage of passive sentences, Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. Don't know what readability targets to shoot for? Opinions vary, but for general business writing we aim for:
- Words per sentence: Fewer than 20
- Percentage of passive sentences: Less than 5 percent
- Flesch Reading Ease: Greater than 50
- Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: Between eight and 10 (no mass-market publications are above 12)
Exercise: This one is a three-part exercise. First, turn on the spelling, grammar and readability checkers in your word processing program. If using Microsoft Word 2010, click on the File menu, then Options, then Proofing. Make sure the following boxes are checked and click OK:
- Check spelling as you type
- Use contextual spelling
- Mark grammar errors as you type
- Check grammar with spelling
- Show readability statistics
Second, select the same settings in your email program. If using Microsoft Outlook 2010, click on the File menu, then Options, then Mail, then Spelling and AutoCorrect. Make sure the same boxes are checked and click OK. Still confused? Click here for more instructions.
Third, write down your readability targets on a small piece of paper and tape it to the right edge of your monitor. From now on, aim to get each of your documents and longish emails within the targets.
8. Learn and practice
While master's degrees and week-long training sessions are great, they're not the only ways to learn about effective business writing. There are plenty of websites out there with free seminars, tutorials and guidebooks. Check them out.
While you’re at it, subscribe to some writing blogs. Talk to professional writers. Seek out high quality writing. Before you know it, you’ll be writing like a pro.
Exercise: In the next few days, find two business writing blogs and subscribe to them. Then, find a website with free access to lessons and tutorials, and set aside 30 minutes each week to learn about a topic. A few good sites are the Guide to Grammar and Writing, AskOxford: Better Writing and The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). Have fun.
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