Saturday, April 24, 2010

Workplace Writing: As Easy as 1, 2, 3

If your regular job doesn’t involve working with words, you might think writing is something you studied in high school or college. It’s an academic subject, you say, and only some people are good at it. Right?

Wrong. In fact, you couldn’t be more wrong. Writing skills are just that: skills. If you can learn to create an Excel spreadsheet, run a POS terminal, or accomplish any of the many tasks required to do your job well, then you can learn to write clearly, coherently and effectively in the workplace.

Here are a few strategies to make the writing process easier and to help you avoid some common pitfalls.

Step 1: Beginning, Middle, End

Think of everything you write as having three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some business writers describe this structure as the what, so what, and now what.

The beginning states the purpose of your message and gives the reader an idea of what you’re writing about. For example, “Here is the agenda for Tuesday’s progress meeting” or “Could you please check into the status of Order Number 12345?” Keep it brief and focused.

The middle is where you give the details, the so what, of your message. For example, “At the meeting, we will address training schedules for the new equipment, as well as discuss some recent problems with customer service.” Or, “The customer called this morning about part number 1234 that was ordered on Monday, May 3 for delivery on May 10. Could you track this order and let me know when the order will be filled?” Include as many details as the reader will need, but don’t overdo it. For instance, if your message is intended to get people out of the building safely in case of fire, a simple “Use the stairs, not the elevator” will be much more effective than a lengthy, technical explanation of the dangers of combining fire, smoke and elevator shafts.

The end is where the reader gets his instructions, the now what. “Call me if you have any problems.” “Please let me know by Friday.” “Thanks for calling, and I will get back to you within three days.” The end is where you close the message, courteously and clearly.

Step 2: Plan, Write, Revise

There’s another threesome you need to be aware of, and this is the one that most time-pressed writers forget. Plan, write, revise: these three steps could make the difference between a clear message that impresses the reader, and a sloppy, disorganized message that reflects badly on you and your business.

Here’s an example of a message that once sat blaring in my inbox:

Thnx for getting in touch i’m looking for help with a website rewrite. We’re in the process of rebranding and have met with all the neccesary people now need u to pull it together. Can we meet Monday, my office. Anytime is ok with me but I am pretty loaded with another big client at the moment so maybe u should call me or i’ll call u to set up a time that works for both us. Thanks for getting in touch and i’ll be in touch.

These are clearly the ramblings of someone who didn’t take the time to think before – or after – writing. There’s nothing wrong with pounding out your thoughts, but once you’ve done that, read your message again. Does she need to know that you’re busy with another big client? Do you need to repeat the first line at the end? If the main point of the message is to set up a meeting, why don’t you just say that? And remember, it’s best to leave the informal MSN-speak for your off-hours, please.

A better message would have been:

Thanks for getting in touch. I’d like to talk with you about the Web site rewrite. Can we meet on Monday at my office at 2:00 p.m.? I will call to confirm the time with you.

Which leads me to my last point:

Step 3: Bigger is NOT Better

Despite what many business writers think, plain English is always best. Use short sentences. Use short, familiar words. Avoid jargon. A tendency towards the utilization of multi-syllabic verbiage will exponentially interfere with the ability of your communication to be interpreted and comprehended by the audience. Translation: Using big words will make it hard for readers to understand your message.

Keeping these strategies in mind when tackling your next writing task will help increase your skill and confidence as writer. Better yet, strong writing skills will increase your value to your organization, and that benefits everyone.

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