One of the things I constantly heard when I worked in the business world was that some people are good writers and others simply don't have that gift. When I was at school, there was a similar statement, often supported by teachers, with maths and science students "forgiven" for weaker writing skills. But it doesn't have to be that way. And while not everyone can be a Hemingway, it is possible to become a good writer.
With email and social media becoming the main forms of written communication, we've become accustomed to using shorthand and creative grammar to get a point across. That's not a bad thing - language is not static. It constantly evolves with new words created, old ones discarded and existing one re-purprosed.
But the purpose of the written word hasn't changed. It's about conveying ideas and applying them to be retained and retrieved. So, what can you do to improve your writing skills?
#1 - Keep it simple
One of the biggest mistakes I see when reading business documents is overuse of large words and overly long and complex sentences.
Stick to short sentences that convey simple messages and avoid using a long word when a shorter one will do.
One thing I've found is that strict adherence to grammatical rules can make your writing feel stilted. For example, when I learned about grammar, I was taught to never start a sentence with "And" or "But". But if it makes the prose easier to read - I say go for it.
#2 - Read
The best way to understand the difference between good and poor writing is to read a lot. Different writers have their own styles and you can learn a lot by reading and thinking about how writers convey ideas.
One of the things that becomes clear when reading is that good writers understand good grammar but they also have a good sense of when the rules can be bent or broken.
#3 - Write
The late Jerry Pournelle said that you need to write about two million words before you reach competence. As well as writing, you need to critique those words.
I've also found it's important to find two people; one you trust to review your work and another who you identify as your audience.
The person you write for might change depending on the project you're working on. But having a reader in mind helps focus your writing. For example, the person I have in mind for this is someone who has to write business documents but struggles to be understood.
#4 - Editing tips
There are lots of tips for editing your work that will help make your writing tighter and easier to read. Here are a few that I've found most helpful.
- Read your work aloud. It's a great way to pick up any weird or stilted grammar.
- Omit words that aren't needed. For example, I have a habit of using the word 'that' too often. When I edit my work, I rewrite sentences without that'. If they make sense, I leave it out.
- Simplify sentences. If a sentence feels long then it probably needs to be either cut down or split into two or more sentences.
- Changing the font is a great way to help you spot errors you may have missed the first time around.
#5 - Resources
There are dozens of great sites and books to help you become a better write. These are three of my favourites.
1 - Subscribe to Grammarly: It will only take a few minutes each time a new post appears but you’ll pick up lots of useful tips. They also have a Facebook page.
2 - Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White: This is a short book that I read each year. It will only take a couple of hours to read and although it’s a little dated it provides great advice for writing clean prose.
3- Stephen King’s “On Writing”: This is a interesting book that plots King’s life so far and discusses what he’s learned about the craft of writing. It will take a little longer to read than The Elements of Style but it’s very valuable.