How frustrating! You put a great deal of thought into that last memo or instruction, and your co-worker doesn’t get it. You thought you had a good plan for this piece. So what happened? Let’s take a look at our “how to” checklist – 10 quick and easy things you can do to help your writing communicate clearly; to help your reader “get it” at a glance.
- Make it look easy to read. One little known, and less-discussed secret of business writing is that writing is a visual art. How it looks on the screen, or on paper, can determine how your reader understands the piece, and even whether or not your reader understands it at all. Try alternate formats to help.
- Get off to a good start. Put your reader in touch before getting into the details. Let him or her know what’s coming, and manage his or her expectations. Provide a head start to increase comprehension, develop overall understanding, and speed the reading process. In short: use that old who-what-when-where-why-how first paragraph formula.
- Know your reader. We’ve all heard this one before. But the question is – what does “know your reader” mean? Well, it means something different in every case, and for every different situation. The three consistent factors that apply to every piece of business writing are: (a) ask yourself why your reader needs this piece of information; (b) understand how he or she will use this piece of information (if no good answer comes to mind, it’s quite likely this piece does not need to be communicated at all); and (c) remember to factor in your purpose for writing it.
- Build a Significance Bridge for your reader. He or she needs to know, up front, why he or she should read it at all, and whether, or how it will apply to him or to her, and to his or her interests. If you are writing to persuade, this bridge between the reader and your message will be “What’s in it for me (the reader)?” If you are writing to inform, tell the reader what he or she needs to do with this piece of information.
- Organize carefully. Select an organizational structure that will match the purpose of this piece. Here are a few structures for your consideration: (a) flow from the first paragraph (Sometimes this just happens. Most often you will have to plan for it); (b) Organize in a time sequence; (c) Organize by a procedural sequence; or (d) Start with the most important first, with one thought flowing into the next by order of importance. By organizing in this way, you can make your writing more concise because you will make each point only once.
- Make your point as quickly as appropriate. In most cases, in American business writing you will want to make your point as quickly as possible, and get on with it. But sometimes, e.g., when dealing with emotions, you may plan to build in some reading time, on purpose, for a specific reason. This does not mean “fluff,” and it does not mean wandering or meandering around, and somehow falling into the point, almost by accident. It means clear, concise writing that may “set up” the situation before going into detail. Giving bad news could be one such reason for building in reading time: to help the reader come to grips with his or her feelings.
- Use familiar, “comfortable” words to enhance readability. Avoid hard-to-read, stuffy, stilted, unfamiliar words and phrases unless they are required to build the appropriate tone.
- Keep your average sentence length between 14 and 17 words for the average American business reader.
- Avoid overworking detail, or restating the obvious.
- Use active sentences. (Someone doing something.)
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