There are plenty of excellent sources on how to write well. Writing is a lifelong area in which to improve. I like the courses and books that focus on plain English writing: how to condense and distill ideas into crisp material. Clear writing is more effective, more likely to be read, and more enjoyable to read than jargon, technical talk, and overly long prose and big words.
The military acronym “BLUF” is excellent: Bottom Line Up Front. This is similar to the media writing triangle—start with the main points in your first paragraph and only add extra details later, where the reader may never get to them.
- Write it, then delete at least 20% of the words. Half the length is even better. Numerous articles cite findings that the longer the piece, the more likely the key messages will be lost, and that women are more likely to write lengthier material than men. It is a constant effort.
- Less is more. Do multiple cuts on all prose.
- Do not ever use shall, hereto, or other annoying ambiguous legal words.
- Do not overly trust spellcheck. It can turn words into the wrong words. Use your brain on a final scan.
Learn to adjust your writing for different audiences. Writing well is becoming a more rare skill, yet it is still highly desirable. Put in the effort to learn. The target readership audience should determine the style, length, tone, and content. When you are in a new role, ask around and observe closely to conform to writing style norms. This will help you meet expectations and save rework time. Here are a few examples of workplace protocols and style considerations for awareness. Avoid academic writing style, the long version we learn in school.
- Follow organizational protocols. Are there templates with certain colors and headings to be followed? Get the templates.
- Certain fields have established guidelines. Courts require font, sizing, and spacing rules. Check for required or preferred styles.
- High-level leaders may want one-page slides with three bullet points maximum, a one-page briefing paper, or another specific format.
- Technical teams may want long explanations bolstered by data charts.
- Materials for public release and talking points are more guarded and oriented toward public relations.
- Writing for a particular leader: Does this person prefer a menu of choices? Lay out the options clearly. Does she prefer verbal briefings? Have backup source material on hand, perhaps with a brief issues outline. She prefers data? Turn that narrative into pivot charts with detailed headings. She prefers more visuals than words? Follow the leader.
As you submit written work products, continue to seek guidance. What does the recipient want out of this report/presentation? What does success look like? What am I answering? Remember to focus on what you are asked to do, not what you think you should do. This is a very common error. You may not have full visibility of why the requestor needs what is asked for, or how the report fits into the bigger context. If you are asked for a one-sentence summary, send one. Do not send five paragraphs or attached PDF documents. As a manager in one position I had to redo written products often because I would ask for a certain format and receive way too much back from technical staff. My bosses expected the requested format. I made focused improvement in concise writing a team priority.
It is usually better off to err on the side of short, with backup information attached. People will ask if they have questions or want more detail. They need the answers and proposals, not lengthy acronyms, dates, stories that lead to current status, or a playbook of what you did. People today also generally expect short materials with visual components: graphics, images, a package they can quickly scan rather than read in depth.
In the business world, long compilations of material with no bottom-line impact statements or visuals have no value to busy executives. Be open to the possibility that your writing needs to be tuned to the audience. And listen. Our experts share that they have had employees that eventually got transferred to other teams after efforts to transition their writing styles did not result in enough shift. An employee may believe his writing is high quality, but if it requires frequent rework to meet the needs of the recipients, this may be a blind spot. Seek feedback and adjust styles throughout your career. Be a trusted partner, strong editor and valued content provider rather than defensive and fixed on one style.