business writing laptop

How will we know it's good?

Let's see if we can agree on a few tests of effective writing. Here are mine.

It must be easy to read, absorb and remember.
It must engage the reader.
It must build a relationship with the reader. (Not important for technical reports)

The real challenge of writing effectively is to use a few simple ideas consistently.

I notice in training that many writers are on the right track, but they are inconsistent. All they need is to monitor their writing as they write. Many others have never thought about their writing style or have picked up some myths.

Let's dismiss a couple of major myths first

Myth 1: To be professional we have to write formally

Sure, you don't want to seem casual, but that's not a reason to lapse into stuffy commercial English .

The great guru of English usage, Henry Fowler, describes commercial English as 'an evil tradition'. If you work for a large organisation, it will only confirm a prejudice: that you are a bureaucrat who doesn't relate to real people.

Myth 2: Simple writing is 'dumbing down'

That's just an excuse for not communicating effectively. The fear of dumbing down encourages technical writers to fill their reports with dull and imprecise passive language and unnecessarily long words. Their sentences are often mind-bendingly convoluted. The resulting lofty tone invites readers to skim.

Impress your readers with your ideas, not the words you know or the complexity of your sentences.

So what should I write instead of stuffy and lofty language?

The most common advice is to write as if you are talking to your readers, but that's not enough for people who work in large organisations.

So here's my suggestion:

Write as if you are speaking to your readers - at the place they will consider your report.

It's for your manager? Let your style reflect the way you would speak to her in her office.

It's for the directors, councillors or the senior management team? Imagine you are presenting your report verbally during their formal meeting. You'll use slightly more formal language and fewer contractions, but not the strange and artificial language of bureacracy or academia.

But wait, there's more.

Two key ideas that may transform your writing...

1. Focus on your readers

It's the golden rule of writing. It sounds easy, but it's a very demanding discipline. It governs what we include in our reports and emails and every word, sentence and paragraph.

Keep asking, 'Would my readers find this idea useful? Would they understand this idea, jargon, sentence or paragraph? Would these words and ideas persuade them to take action? Ask, 'How will my reader feel about my organisation or me if I put it that way?'

2. Be appropriately direct

Make sure that your readers understand the purpose or key point of your email or report from the first or second sentence. Don't write it like a murder mystery, with background first and the decision or news at the end.

A couple of examples...

Ordinary writing
'I am writing to you in regards to your recent letter.'

A clear purpose with informal language
'Thank you for your email on Friday. I agree. We must take action immediately.'

Ordinary writing
'This report includes a number of recommendations relating to administration. It should be noted that some carry implications for the current budget.

A clear purpose
'This report recommends several changes to our administration. Some of them involve spending that will exceed our budget.'

Being reader-focused and direct are related. It's reader-focused to state your purpose or main point up-front.

Begin by answering the questions running through your reader's mind. Could they be, 'What's this about? What's new? What do they want me to do? What have they decided? What's in it for me? Why should I read it?

Answer those questions early and they'll read it all. Leave your answers out, or until the end, and they'll just scan or maybe delete.

Stay focused.