Tuesday, January 8, 2013

10 Ways to Improve Your Writing


Writing well is a critical skill for IT professionals who have to convey technical information to technical and non-technical people. "The better you can communicate your message in ways that other people understand, the more likely you are to succeed in whatever you are trying to do," says James Chartrand, founder of Damn Fine Words, an online writing course for business people.

Do you find yourself repeatedly frustrated because people misunderstand your emails, or fail to take the right action after reading your reports and memos? If so, it's time to step up to the keyboard and improve your writing skills.

Writing well is a critical skill for IT professionals who have to convey technical information to technical and non-technical people. "The better you can communicate your message in ways that other people understand, the more likely you are to succeed in whatever you are trying to do," says James Chartrand, founder of the online writing course for business people, Damn Fine Words, and owner of the Montreal-based graphics design and copywriting company Men With Pens.
Chartrand, Denver-based business writing consultant and trainer Jodi Torpey and San Diego-based marketing and business communications consultant Lee Polevoi shared their ideas about how professionals can improve their writing skills.

1. Make it a habit to plan, draft & revise — everything

Give yourself time to plan, draft and revise your writing. "I am a big proponent of thinking first before you put any words on paper," says Torpey.

For short emails, this can be a matter of minutes, but taking those minutes to more tightly focus your message can be the difference between a quick resolution and a protracted, multi-party email chain.

2. Write with your goals and your readers' interests in mind

When planning what to write, think about:
  • What do I want to say?
  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Who will read this?
  • What will these readers need to know?
  • What are they most interested in?
  • What do I want these readers to do after reading this?
"All writing should be reader-centered," Torpey contends. "Ask yourself, 'How's my reader going to use this information? Does it answer their questions?' "

3. Think Conversation, Not Gettysburg Address

Polevoi and Chartrand encourage people to write as though they are talking to their readers. "Your message, put down in conversational language in the draft, can always be made more formal later, if need be," says Polevoi.

Chartrand adds, "If you just relax and treat the other person who is going to read your work as a normal person, consider yourself a normal person, and write as if it were a natural conversation, it gets far more results."

Chartrand notes this is hard for people 30 and older who have been taught to write more formally. Younger people have just the opposite problem. "They're almost too relaxed, too casual, and they can be taken not very seriously."

If you want your writing to sound conversational, relaxed, and in control, envision yourself as that person when you write, "and you will write accordingly," says Chartrand. "Your brain will take over, and you will carry that tone."

4. Draft freely, set the draft aside, and then come back to revise

You can let 'er rip with a first draft and include all details and side information you want, but expect to mercilessly rearrange and remove information during revision. "Put everything down, then let it sit for a little bit," says Polevoi. "Then go back and start to organize it."
This "little bit" can be a matter of minutes for an email, or a matter of days for a longer report, schedules permitting. But any time you can step away from your draft will improve your ability to catch mistakes and to strengthen the content of your writing.

5. Get to the point — quickly!

State your purpose and any action or decision you want the reader to undertake at the very beginning of whatever you write.
Getting to the point quickly is critical, Polevoi says. "Nobody has time to cut through a jungle of words to find out what you are taking about."
With email, Polevoi says, "The subject line and the first sentence (of the email message) should address what the communication is about. Then you can back up with as much detail as you need to."
Place the main point and any call to action at the beginning and the end of longer documents.

6. Organize your information for the reader

"List the most important thing to the reader first," says Torpey. For example, for a CFO, talk about budget first.
Use page design tools to visually organize information. "Think about using headings, bullet points, numbered lists and tables to get your points across," Torpey suggests. "Anything that helps readers find the information quickly."

7. Eliminate—or reduce and explain—IT jargon

Avoid using industry jargon and technical terms in writing because not all readers know this specialized information. If you don't need the jargon or industry terms, leave them out. If you do, "try to break that down," says Polevoi. Define technical terms and write out acronyms to help non-technical readers, for example.

8. Keep Your Writing as Short as Possible

Readers can get lost in or distracted by unneeded detail. Keep your paragraphs short —three or four sentences max, advises Torpey. Exclude all non-crucial information.
"A lot of times you can take a huge message that's about a thousand words, and trim it down to something that's about 15 words," says Chartrand. "The clearer it is, the faster it is to understand, the easier it is to read—Boom! You get action from that."

9. If you need help with grammar and punctuation, get it—ASAP.

Writing marred by poor grammar and punctuation mistakes can reflect badly on the writer, making readers consider the writer less capable. So if you need help in this area, study up (via free online resources such as GrammarBook.com or Grammar Girl) or invest in a brush-up course or two as soon as possible.

10. Read everything aloud

Read your writing aloud in a natural conversational tone, Chartrand urges. "This is a really, really simple trick that not enough people use." You might feel silly but Chartrand says, "It's actually one of the most important things you could do."
By reading what you've written at the same pace as if you were talking to someone, "you will spot mistakes, stiff areas, awkward sentences, or weak-sounding words right away," she says. "It's the fastest way to improve your writing."

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