Management Today article
September 2009: Feature
Writing for Results
To keep misunderstandings in business to a minimum; clear, concise written communications are essential. By Patricia Hoyle.
A computer on every desk, the internet, email and SMS all mean we now spend more time communicating and gathering information through the written word. Communication has become easier. Yet, it is not necessarily better.
Poor written communication costs money. Complex and wordy documents or websites mean, at best, clients or customers will phone for explanations. At worst, they will stop reading or click to another website. Poorly worded forms incorrectly filled in create processing delays. Confusing procedures cause costly mistakes. Incomprehensible emails and unclear recommendations result in lack of follow-through.
Clear, plain-English written communications, free from grammatical and other errors, on the other hand, promote efficiency and present a focused, professional organisation. As a manager, clear communication will earn you greater respect and there will be fewer communication breakdowns with staff, colleagues, clients and customers.
Successful communicators use plain-English writing because it is focused on the audience and uses only as many words as are necessary to get the message across to the intended audience.
Plain English is not simplistic language - even complex legal documents can be written in plain English. To achieve better results from your written communications, and project a more professional image, you can begin by using the following guidelines.
Define your audience
Always know for whom you are writing; put yourself in your readers' shoes. Is your audience young, old, educated, or knowledgeable of the subject matter? Are they likely to be feeling receptive or hostile towards your topic? How will they use your piece of writing? Remember, you are writing to achieve a particular result; always keep that in mind.
Define your aim
Ask yourself 'Why am I writing this particular document?'. The answer to this question will become your aim. It is the main message you want to get across. For example: the aim of this article is to highlight how clear business writing promotes productivity and projects a professional image. It also provides practical tips for managers to write more efficiently and effectively.
Plan before writing
Decide what your reader needs to know. A time-effective way to start sorting out content is to brainstorm ideas, using a whiteboard or pad. (It's also a great technique to overcome writer's block). At the top of your sheet, write the title and aim of your document. Then write down any words or statements related to your topic that come into your head; review and delete anything not aligned with your aim.
Next, jot down headings and 'trigger' words under the headings using the notes from your brainstorming exercise. Finally, order your discussion by ordering your headings and subheadings into a logical sequence. You now have a working outline for your document or report.
Get the words down
Using your outline as a guide, just get the words down. Avoid the temptation to go back and polish what you have written at this stage.
Time for incubation
Never leave writing tasks to the last minute. After you have written your first draft, put it aside for as long as possible before revising it. The longer you leave it, the better, but at the very least leave it for a few hours or overnight. In between drafts, your unconscious mind will be working on your document, which will be all the richer as a result of allowing this incubation process to happen.
Revise, revise, revise
Even the best professional writers need to edit their work, so don't expect to get it right on the first draft. But if you have planned your writing well you won't need to re-write it. Rather, this is the time to delete repetitions in the text and to convert those wordy, complex expressions and thoughts into clear, concise language the reader will understand. This is the time to polish and refine.
Stay on track
Throughout the whole writing process, periodically ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the information reflect my aim? If the answer to this question is 'yes', you're on track.
- Does the reader really need to know this? If the answer is 'no', then delete this information.
Writing, like swimming, takes particular skill and a lot of practice. Most of us can stay afloat, but not all of us have been trained to win the race. For some publications, calling in a professional writer or editor to create a highly professional finished product free from grammatical and other errors is a wise investment.
Ensuring clear, concise written communication is always worth the time and effort; after all, the productivity and efficiency of your organisation could depend on it.
Patricia Hoyle is Director of the Sydney-based ConciseWritingConsultancy.
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