Chances are that you spend much of your day writing. Whether it’s crafting a project update report or sending an email, your written communications are often a big part of your professional life.
What you may not realize, however, is how that writing can make or break your career. Poorly written reports, sloppy emails and even terse text messages can undermine your professional image, perhaps even costing you a promotion or an important customer.
In addition, writing beyond the daily email or report is becoming more important for professionals. Many are asked to write for industry publications or blogs as a way to demonstrate their expertise, but poor writing can quickly undermine that effort.
It’s also important to realize that your writing lasts forever. Even emails can be unearthed from years ago, so make sure what you’re writing can stand the test of time and isn’t something you – or your boss – will be embarrassed to discover down the line.
So, how do you become a better writer so that your career will benefit?
- Don't betray the reader’s trust. Verify what you write and not just through Wikipedia. If you quote a fact, consult more than one source to make sure you give an accurate date or spelling.
- Give it time to breathe. Just like a fine wine, fine writing often benefits sitting for a bit. When you've written, edited and rewritten your copy, walk away from it, even if you can only give it 10 minutes while you go refresh your coffee. Nine times out of 10 you'll spot some awkward phrasing or wordiness in your writing when you look at it with a fresh eye.
- Be concise. First, let me say that there is such a thing as being too concise these days. Personally, I don't like getting thank-you -emails that say “thx” along with an automated signature. At the same time, I don't want to wade through five paragraphs to find out what the heck it is you want from me. Your first sentence should answer the “so what?” question for me. That intrigues me to read more.
- Be consistent. I use the Associated Press Stylebook, which makes sure that I follow a consistent style. For example, don't write out “percent” some of the time and then use “%” other times. If you're going to refer to someone by his or her last name in your writing, don't switch halfway through to the person’s first name or you're going to confuse your reader. Consistency lets the reader focus on your message.
- Make sure it’s relevant. Just because you have loads of great information doesn't mean you need to include it all. Your readers will appreciate you summarizing key information.
- Read it out loud. You may have to do this in the privacy of your own home so your coworkers don't think you’ve started talking to yourself, but it can help you become a better writer. If you can't read a sentence without running out of breath, it’s too long and needs editing. (An average sentence should be about 15 to 28 words.) Listen for the overuse of jargon and trite phrases such as “at the end of the day” or “outside the box.”
- Give examples. Just as verbal storytelling is shown to really help messages stick, giving examples can provide readers with a visual image that makes your words memorable. Just be careful you don't decide to provide an example that is 800 words long. Again, readers appreciate concise writing, and that goes for any descriptive examples.
- Make it visually appealing. Most readers are willing to give an email or letter about 4.5 seconds of their time, so using bullet points, subheadings or graphics can be helpful in getting them to stick around longer.
- Provide transitions. You want your reader to move through your writing easily. Even if you add “at the same time,” or “further,” it moves the reader more easily into a new paragraph or idea.
- Watch the fat thumbs. Mistakes made while texting are common, but consider the person receiving your missive may open it at the office while checking email. A text riddled with typos and abbreviations can be jarring in such a setting.
In a busy day, it can be difficult to find the time – and lack of distractions – to work on your writing. But since it can leave the most lasting “professional impression,” it’s worth investing the time and effort.
What are some poor writing habits that you believe undermine a person’s credibility?