It’s Not What You Say…8 Tips for Improving your Professional Writing

Do people dread having to read your reports, proposals, memos or other missives? Are your PowerPoint presentations snoozers? Improving your business-writing skills not only helps you look more professional in your industry or profession, it can also help you get more approvals for trips, staff, equipment or funding. Improving your business writing skills is another way to boost your personal brand and career by getting you more opportunities to be published in professional journals and newsletters.

If you want to make a better impression on people through your business writing, remember that the best communicators understand a simple truism – it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. The key to improving your business writing is planning before you start. Organizing your writing before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), can help you make writing less intimidating, more effective and more enjoyable.

#1 Organize Your Thoughts First

Even if you’re just sending a long email, organize your content by jotting down the points you want to make in order of importance. It’s much easier to write a long report or proposal if you break it into several short tasks, rather than trying to tackle it all at once. Start with your contents page if you’re writing a longer document. Include an executive summary, which is a brief (half-page) overview of the document with no details. You’ll support your statements later in the body of your document. After your executive summary, list the main sections of your report or proposal and include any sub-headings to break up the copy. Finish with a summary and recommendations. Include an appendix if you want to provide data.

Tackling each section of your document separately allows you to turn your big project into short (15- to 30-minute) writing tasks. You can schedule one or two each day, depending on how much time you have, and avoid a painful writing experience.

#2 Start Strong

Read any article on the front page of any newspaper and you’ll get an idea of what the article is about from the opening sentence. This is how most people decide whether or not they are going to read the rest of the article. Start your emails, memos, blog posts, newsletter articles, reports and proposals with a strong lead sentence or two that sum up the benefit of reading the story.

Some writers use a delayed lead to tease or entice readers into a story, but this takes skill and practice. Focus on using your first sentence to let tell your readers what you’ll be communicating and why it’s important to them. Read a few newspaper articles or website articles from hard news organizations to learn this technique.

#3 Avoid Long Paragraphs

Each paragraph should contain one topic or idea. If a paragraph is half a page long, you’re probably boring your reader. Keep is short. Sometimes, you’ll have several related pieces of information in a paragraph. Start with a topic sentence to ease the transition. For example, you might start a paragraph with, “The seminar planning will require booking a venue, arranging catering, coordinating audio-visual needs and deciding on the room seating.” You will then follow this with four sentences detailing each task.

#4 Focus on the Reader

Even if you are writing a proposal asking for something for your department or agency, emphasis the benefit to the reader. Don’t begin by discussing why you need a new staff member, equipment, trip to a conference, or a grant or donation. Remind the reader of his goals and then show how you will help the reader meet his objectives if he gives you what you’re seeking.

The best way to request money from your boss to send you to a conference or seminar is to show, upfront, a need or problem your boss has. Follow this with a generic solution and then demonstrate how the conference or seminar will provide you with tools to help your boss solve her problem.

#5 Avoid the Passive Voice

We all had this mantra hammered into our heads in high school, but people who work in government, academia, the legal arena, medicine and consulting love to write in the passive voice. It sounds “high tone.” While the passive voice might sound professional, the information you’re presenting gets lost in a sea of words that don’t get to the point. “If we implement the new system, significant cost savings will be obtained by the department,” doesn’t really sound more professional than, “We’ll save $10,000 if we implement the new system.” It sounds like you’re trying to sound professional. Write like you speak. Imagine you are sitting down over a cup of coffee or a beer and try to connect on that level. You shouldn’t be informal or use slang, but get to the point.

Use free online writing analyzer tools like Aztekera, which checks for passive voice. PaperRater checks for general grammar problems and plagiarism. Programs like MS Word come not only with spell checkers, but grammar checkers, as well, including a feature that checks your document for passive voice and makes suggestions for corrections.

#6 Proofread!

Emails, memos and other documents with simple typos and grammatical errors not only show a lack of professionalism, but also disrespect for the reader. Don’t send documents as soon as you finish them. Wait for 30 minutes or more and read them one last time before sending. If you’re sending an important email, don’t write it in your email client – type it in your word processing document, use the spelling and grammar checkers and then transfer it to your email client. Have a friend or co-worker check your work. Not only will they find any errors, they might also point out that you have confusing content that needs to be re-done. Reading your work out loud also helps you spot errors that your eyes don’t catch and lets you hear the rhythm of your content as your readers will hear it.

#7 Invest in The Elements of Style

The best $5 you’ll ever spend on professional development is buying a copy of The Elements of Style. No, get two copies. Put one in your work desk drawer and one in your bathroom. This time-honored quick read will solve many of your most basic writing problems and it provides a quick reference for those “who’s, whose, whom” questions that can drive you nuts. You’ll refer to it repeatedly after you first buy it and remember these tips and improve your writing for many years to come.

#8 Finish Strong

Don’t end longer or complex documents with a fact, figure or quote. Summarize what you’ve just written. Remember the three-step “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you’ve told them” formula for writing. Your last PowerPoint slide should always be a re-cap of your presentation, which should include your premise (problem or opportunity), solution and recommendations.

Organizing your thoughts in advance, using an informative lead, writing in a conversational style with short text blocks, avoiding the passive voice, proofing your work and ending strong will help take your business writing to the next level and raise your stature among your peers.

Do you have any pet peeves about the documents you get from peers? Do you have any suggestions? Feel free to share them.

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