Writing’s tough. There’s no two ways around it. From being able to create an interesting narrative arc, to communicating your point clearly, to nailing grammar and punctuation, it’s a difficult subject to master. What makes it even more frustrating is that good writing is extremely important no matter your career choice. Professionally, being a weak writer or communicator can truly be a stumbling block in your career in any field.
We all struggle with writing from time to time, and grasping a difficult topic or getting wording just right can be time-consuming. Heck, sometimes even writing an email is hard. Luckily, former GovLoop featured blogger Hope Horner recently posted in our forums asking about professional writing tips — and several folks responded with great ideas. Here are some of the tips below. What are your tips to improve writing — especially professional writing?
I am going to be offering a writing workshop for government professionals and would be interested in hearing some of your biggest writing challenges. Where do you/your employees struggle? What mistakes do you see/make time and time again? If you were attending my workshop, one one area/topic would you want me to review in order to help you/your employees write more clearly and professionally? Any general writing tips/resources that have helped you in your career?
#1: Be succinct
James wrote: My old supervisor used to joke about putting folks on adjective restriction. I’d say that key skills include writing 1-pagers, simplifying powerpoint slides with fewer than 20 words, and generally being succinct.
#2: Sometimes not writing is best
Dustin’s advice: Know when not to write – many times it’s better to pick up the phone or walk down the hall. Those actions are faster and lead to better understanding more quickly vs. 18 emails back and forth.
#3: Figure out your audience beforehand
Says Lauren: Know your audience! Who’s going to be reading what you write, and what do they know about the topic? You don’t have to write to the least common denominator, but you can write in a straightforward way that’s not full of technical terms or legalese.
#4: Make sure your writing conveys a point
Mark said: I think one of the biggest challenges in such writing, and one of the skills that is perhaps harder to teach, or acquire, is writing in service of someone else making a decision. Many briefing notes, or reports, have, as their goal, allowing someone with equal or greater authority than oneself, to make a decision about something. We may be so intent on conveying what we know, that the end-user or requester is still scratching their head, upon reading it, and asking “So what of this is crucial for me to know? Where should my priorities lie? What is going to matter down the road?”.
Naturally, serving that goal of clarity in thinking and decision-making is aided when one knows more about the audience; hard to second-guess the needs of an unidentified end-user/reader. But it also suggests that one should always start out with, and insist upon, as much information that lets you get inside the head and motives of the end-user as possible. Better writing is well-served by better insight and clearer directives.
#5: Plain writing is usually good writing
This is my tip! I wrote: One of the things I see people deal with the most is not understanding that oftentimes the simplest way of saying something is the best. Flowery language, run on sentences, adjectives after adjectives… It’d be great if you could convey that plain, simple writing is often the most persuasive and effective and that overwrought writing is not great writing.
#6: Your emails need to be written well, too
GovLoop founder Steve Ressler said: Give them an email writing course. Most gov’t employees write a lot of emails but have never been taught email writing (format, style, tips).
#7: Writing about numbers is a skill, too
Added Darrell: One that I try to teach often is the art of presenting numbers. A lot of technical material ends up having to present numbers in some form or fashion. It is human nature when we have worked hard to get a number, to then try to show every number that we went through to get to the important number. One thing I like to remind people is that no one really cares how hard you worked, they only want to know what the results were.
If you do have to show a lot of numbers, first consider a way to put it in a graph. If you can’t get it in a graph, put it into a table. If no table, then put it in a simple list. Second, if you have the detailed numbers in a graph or table, refer to it in your writing in rough, whole numbers (as long as it does not lose context). “About 6.7 million” is much easier to read than “6,741,103.”
#8: Seriously, write your emails well
Juana advised: Makes me crazy when I see poor grammar and lack of capital letters at the beginning of sentences in business e-mails. Also, please, please, tell people that when replying to an e-mail to notice if they really need to send to all or just to the sender.
Those are just a few professional writing tips from the GovLoop community — we’d love to hear yours, too.
- What’s your biggest writing pet peeve you see others do in a professional setting?
- If you could give folks just one writing tip, what would it be?
Chime in in the comments!