10 Tips for Better Writing
Despite our shift to other forms of communication like charts, Zoom, and audio recordings many kinds of communication still must be written—status reports, research papers, user documentation, presentations, email, and web pages. Many people resist writing and are out of practice, but small improvements can make a big difference. If you would rather go to the dentist than write a one-page report, these tips are for you.
Whenever I get paid to write an article or get a commission check for one of my books, my high school English teacher spins in her grave. I am NOT a great writer, but I pride myself in writing that is easy to read. I’m much more comfortable writing than some of my friends, colleagues, and clients—especially those with a technical rather than liberal arts education. What follows are a few tips that have helped me.
- Give yourself permission to create a bad draft. Rather than save the best for last, this is probably the most useful tip. Don’t stare at a blank page (or screen) looking for the perfect opening sentence, START. With the invention of word processors, editing is easy once you have something down.
- Know your audience. What do you assume they know? What do you assume they don’t know? Why might they care about what you are writing? What do you want them to do or feel or know when they are finished reading?
- Keep it simple. Avoid using a three-dollar word when something simpler will do. Beware acronyms—assuming anyone who reads what you are writing will be able to decode them is off-putting for those who can’t. When acronyms are appropriate, tell people what they mean the first time you use them.
- Keep sentences short. Periods are a wonderful invention. They tell the reader when to stop stuffing words into their mouths and start chewing on meaning. Many times my brain has choked trying to read long flowery sentences that went on so long I forgot where they started.
- The first section of any policy or process document should be a sentence or two that explains why you bothered to write the document in the first place. if you can’t write that sentence, the document probably doesn’t need to be written (or you don’t yet understand why and you aren’t ready to write it).
- Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Technical writing doesn’t need much spice. Save your adjectives for fiction. If you are writing fiction, use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.
- Get feedback. Seek honest feedback. Napoleon used what he called a “Corporal Test”; he would write detailed instructions to a general, then grab a corporal to read them and tell him what the corporal thought it said. Napoleon’s idea was that if it was clear to a corporal, he would hang a general who managed to misunderstand. Skip hangings but find someone who matches your target demographic and ask what meaning they made of your writing, listen, and revise accordingly.
- Edit. Writing is easy, editing is hard. Don’t edit while you write, it’s too easy to get bogged down. I will confess that I no longer follow this rule, but it was very helpful when I was less experienced because it encouraged me to get raw material on the page quickly (see tip #1). When editing, I find it helpful to “read aloud” (even if it’s silently to myself) to catch awkward bits and double words. Word processors are getting good at spelling and grammar checks too.
- Be clear and brief. Many people assume that expressing complex ideas requires dozens of pages. You probably remember that from painful hours spent pounding your head against college textbooks. Recall your favorite examples of technical writing, they were probably short and to the point. Readers like that.
- Write! My writing career started with a monthly column in a local PMI (Project Management Institute) newsletter. The column ran 300-400 words—about 2/3 of a page. Initially, articles took hours to write. After the first couple dozen, it usually took less than an hour. Your writing muscles get stronger quickly when exercised.
Effectively communicating ideas with written words is vital to success in our profession. My career has certainly been boosted by my modest writing skills and my willingness to write—much to the surprise and dismay of a certain dead high school English teacher. I hope this advice was useful for you, it’s what I wish someone had told me 30 years ago.