Improving Your Writing Skills

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • Before you start, get organized.
  • Writing with style.
  • Proofreading and editing.

It doesn't matter what kind of job you have: at some stage you are going to have to write. There are few things more damaging to a SharpMan’s career than sloppy, unclear or grammatically incorrect writing. Whether memos, business letters, sales materials, reports or newsletters, your writing should be error-free, clear and effective. Spelling mistakes, grammar slips and rambling prose can all damage your image as an educated and intelligent member of the team.

Never fear. While the ability to write poetry and inspiring prose is an inherent talent, the skills required for business documents can be learned in three basic steps. Check ‘em out:

Step One: Get organized.

Before you begin writing, take a few moments to clarify what you want to communicate. The best way to do this is to jot down all the points you need to make. Using numbers, organize these points in order of importance. Group related points where appropriate. When you begin writing the body of your memo or letter, you will dedicate a paragraph to expanding each point.

Next, compose a brief summary of the report or letter’s purpose, i.e. what the letter is about or what the memo is highlighting. This will serve as your opening paragraph.

For the concluding paragraph, you will lay out any action that you would like the reader to take or simply sum up the writing’s important points again.

Step Two: Write with style.

The way you write something is also important. If you use complicated language, rambling sentences and poor grammar, you make it difficult for your reader to understand what you are trying to communicate. In order to get your point across clearly and effectively, consider improving the style of your writing. Here are some tips:

  • Trim the fat from your writing. Pare down your words to the minimum. Take out any unnecessary adverbs and adjectives and stick to your point. Avoid repeating yourself.
  • Keep your language simple. Don’t show off your extensive vocabulary in reports, memos and letters. Think of your audience and stick to simple and clear language. Avoid using long and unfamiliar words, unless they are essential to the subject. Explain any technical terms that the reader may not understand. Keep explanations short by putting the meaning of terms in parentheses.
  • Break up long, rambling sentences. Long sentences are hard to read. Keep your sentences short. If you have to use a long sentence, break it up with a conjunction (e.g. "but" or "however") and follow it with a short sentence. Mixing longer and shorter sentences usually makes reading easier.
  • Brush up on your grammar and spelling. If you are uncertain of a spelling or the meaning of a word, look it up or allow your word processor's spell-checker to help you. Never presume that you'll get away with an incorrect spelling or a misplaced meaning. The reader will spot it.
  • Listen to what you write. Read what you’ve written out loud. It’s a great test. Reading aloud will help you hear and identify any strange sentence construction and determine whether or not your point is clear.
  • Lay out your document for easy reading. Long paragraphs and chunks of text turn most people off. Most readers want to scan through a document for the important points. Make this easy for your readers by dividing your writing into sections. Add clear headings that explain what each paragraph is about. Bulleted lists are easier to read than paragraphs. Also consider sparsely highlighting important phrases in bold.

Step Three: Proofreading and editing.

Finally, it is crucial to go back over what you have written to spot errors, judge the "flow" and ensure that your document clearly conveys your points.

  • Spell check. Use your word processor's spell-checker to review your finished text. The program will highlight spelling mistakes you wouldn’t want any reader to see.
  • Proofread. A spell-checking program is limited, however, so you still need to go over the document to spot any mistakes it missed. Pay particular attention to words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. "Proofreading" is easier to do with a printed document.

    The secret to good proofreading is to read every word slowly and carefully. This may sound obvious, but in everyday reading we tend to skip over every third or fourth word, especially the small ones. Practice reading each word out loud until you get used to this new way of reading.

    While it is essential to check spelling mistakes and word context, you must also watch out for consistency throughout your manuscript. Words with two spellings should not change as your document continues. For example, decide whether you will use realise or realize, book-keeping or bookkeeping, and keep them consistent. (If your company has a style manual, check it to make sure your choice conforms. ) The same goes for names. On first mention, state a person’s full name ("Mr. Jim Johnson") and subsequently choose between the first name ("Jim") or last name ("Mr. Johnson") for further reference.

  • Choose a font that is easy to read. There is no need to enhance your manuscript by using fancy fonts. These will make your document more difficult to read. Stick to one or two clear fonts and highlight using one consistent style, such as bold or italic.
  • Get a second opinion. Often we cannot spot the errors in our own writing, so have someone else read through your document to check it for mistakes and to ensure that your meaning is clearly conveyed.
This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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