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Good Writing: The Basics of Written Communication

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Because we have become so accustomed to communicating through electronic devices, we sometimes forget that digital marketing, email, text messaging, and social media all involve writing. From a few words on social media posts to a soap-box diatribe in an email, our written communication directly moves the perceived needle on our reputation, professionalism, influencer status, and leadership meters. It also shows the world our personality, positions, confidence, and integrity.

This all happens, for right or wrong, because we have social standards around the level of the written word and the intelligence, upbringing, status, ability, and potential of the person writing the message. Yup, we all judge each other by how we communicate in writing.

Good writing is:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Organized
  • Compelling- conveying a message or telling a story that people want to read.

Good Writing Is Clear and Concise

The order of these words (first clear, then concise) is important. It does not matter how brief you are if your meaning is not clear.

Short words (3 syllables or less), short sentences (averaging 25 words, with under 25), and short paragraphs (averaging 5 sentences) all help the reader to quickly grasp your meaning. When you pack your writing with jargon and multi-syllable words (“we enumerated and elucidated the actionable incremental functions of the group”), you slow down understanding and invite confusion.

As an experiment, take any piece of your own writing and rewrite it using only 3-syllable words. You will find that the content gains vital energy and loses nothing in meaning. If it takes three extra words to make your meaning clear, use them. Again, clear comes before concise.

Clear writing is also exact. Instead of saying “the project succeeded,” a good writer would give data on the difference it made, the standards it met, and the precise goals it achieved. Exact words rely on nouns and verbs more than adjectives and adverbs—how fast is quickly and how precise is precisly?

TIP: Writing that makes a reader struggle is poor writing; good writing is fluid.

Good Writing Is Organized

Many experiments have proven that individuals can remember at most 7 items at one time; indeed, some research puts the number as low as four. Thus, the good writer focuses on a few items that are most important, rather than attempting to write about everything all at once. There is always another email, blog post, website page, or piece of paper for communicating the next idea.

A good writer alerts the reader as to what is coming next and then delivers on that promise. The first sentence leads into the paragraph; the first paragraph leads into the page; and the first chapter leads into the book. However, good writing is never a bare list. A list of products and services, for example, fails to engage the reader until it is clear how those products and services will affect the reader’s life.

TIP: Organized writing is focused and consistent in style, format, and intended audience.

Caution: While online spell checkers are very helpful, online grammar checkers are almost universally worthless; they have trouble with compound sentences, subject/verb agreement, and other basic rules of grammar. The best reference guide and introduction to writing is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, a timeless classic of barely 100 pages. It is a model of communication in writing that is correct, clear, concise, well-organized, and compelling.

Good Writing Is Compelling

Compelling writing always starts with the audience, the reader. Every piece of writing—whether it is making a request, asking a question, responding to a crisis, or sharing information—has a reader who must understand the content and, above all, be willing to read it. The good writer identifies and stays true to one audience, without switching mid-stream (for example, from a knowledgeable reader to a novice).

What you write must have value to the reader or it will remain unread:

  • Customers who search for your product or service have a specific problem or need that must be addressed in marketing collateral or they will move on.
  • The reply to a Request for Proposal (RFP) should address the questions and subjects highlighted in the RFP or the response will be rejected.
  • In internal corporate communications, readers want the most important information first (“we gained a new client,” “we are shutting down,” “my team has finished ahead of schedule and below budget”); save the details for later in the document.
  • Good writing recognizes the limitations of writing. When you are communicating face-to-face, the expressions and attitudes of your audience give you vital clues about their understanding and openness to your message. You have time to retract and modify your words and attitude. When you are communicating in writing, a bad joke, an inappropriate word, or a strong emotion may stop communication before it starts.
  • Good writing makes use of alternatives to words: graphs, photos, illustrations, video, graphic design. Words are not the only way to communicate, and many people understand a diagram faster than a long explanation.

TIP: True communication begins when you take your audience into account.

How to Tell When You Need Writing Help

The biggest sign that you need writing help is when a writing project sits on your desk day after day, whether from time limitations or a reluctance to begin. Oddly enough, another sign is an inability to stop writing. Written communications only start working when they are read—and they are only read when you stop writing and send them out. If either starting or stopping is a problem for you, you may want to delegate the writing.

You or your team may need writing help if you write by committee, with everyone editing everyone else so that the final document makes very little sense. In that case, you should assign a single person with final responsibility for the entire document, ensuring that it is consistent, as well as clear, concise, well organized, and interesting.

Finally, if your written communications cause frustration or even anger in other people, you must look to your writing, not to their understanding. It is the author’s job to help the reader.

Key Takeaways

Good writing guides the reader to understanding by using clear, concise language; delivering well-organized thoughts; and always keeping the reader’s interests in mind.

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