Has Effective Writing Become Extinct?

First, it was the dinosaurs. Now, it’s writing skills.

Effective writing can be added to the list of oxymorons, along with “adult children,” “civil war,” and “jumbo shrimp.”

It seems the workplace sucks the life out of our writing skills and replaces them with writing zombies that produce paragraph after paragraph of words that give English teachers recurring nightmares.

Here are few examples from newspaper headlines:

  • “Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25”
  • “Students Cook & Serve Grandparents”
  • “Dam nearly finished, but much left to do”

I have one word for these: “Huh?”

What scares me most is that not only did a reporter write these headlines, but an editor approved them. Two zombies per headline!

Then there are “buzzwords.” They seem to have multiplied in our writing faster than rabbits. Buzzwords are words that are good individually but turn into zombies when we string them together. They sound impressive but convey absolutely no meaning. Examples include paradigms, assessments, parameters, support, maximize, utilize, interactive, validation, and empowering. Don’t believe me? Try playing a game of Buzzword Salad — pick four buzzwords at random and string them together. You’ll get phrases like:

  • “Parameters empowering interactive assessment,” or
  • “Utilizing paradigms of support validation.”

They do sound impressive, but again: “Huh?”

When did we decide our value as employees goes up with the number of words we write? Unless you are a freelancer, you are not paid by the word. You should be writing to express, not impress.

Aside from being annoying, bad writing is costly. Improving your business writing makes both dollars and sense.

Consider FedEx. When they revised the manuals for ground operations employees, they reduced the amount of time employees spent looking for answers by 28 percent and increased the likelihood of finding the right answers by 51 percent. All told, FedEx determined the revised manuals save the company $400,000 annually.

Then there’s the Army, which tested two different memos asking readers to perform a specific task. Those who received the well-written memo were twice as likely to perform the task.

So effective writing saves you money and improves performance. What’s not to like?

Now that you understand the importance of effective writing, here are six rules to improve your writing skills.

  1. Decide on your point: Before you pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard, consider what you are trying to achieve. Are you asking for action or giving an explanation? On a sticky note, write one sentence that summarizes the point of your communication. Keep that within eyesight as you continue writing.
  2. Analyze your audience: Consider who you are writing for. Are they receptive or hostile? What are their needs and interests? Can you find a way to blend their interests and needs with your writing? Your writing should always address your reader’s WIIFM – “What’s in it for me?” If you are asking your readers to spend their time reading your document, give them a really good reason to do so.
  3. Answer all of the questions: Cover the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Answer those questions from your reader’s perspective. Don’t leave your readers with any unanswered questions. They may come up with their own answers, which may not mesh with what you are trying to convey.
  4. Use the KISS principle: “Keep It Super Simple” applies in many different ways. First, think about format. The easier a document is to read, the more likely a reader will read it. Use paragraph headings and bullet points. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Keep sentences short – 15 to 20 words maximum. Use three to five sentences per paragraph. The most effective writing is at the eighth- to 10th-grade level.
  5. Pick the right tone: Reports should be formal. E-mail can be friendly. There is never a good time to be too familiar in business writing. Familiar is for friendships. You may send an e-mail to a friend at work but you never know when he or she might forward that e-mail to a boss or, worse, your boss’s boss. Of the thousands of e-mails you write every week, the one that starts, “Hey, dude, whazzup?” is the one that will get forwarded.
  6. Write once, check twice: Actually, that rule could read, “Write once, check five times — at least.” First, check for names and titles. Nothing annoys a reader more than when you get his or her name wrong. Next, check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation separately. Don’t simply rely on your software. Finally, check again for clarity. A good way to check for clarity is to read what you have written aloud. Suddenly, that 42-word sentence that looks good on paper will have you asking yourself, “What was I thinking?”  Another trick for reviewing your writing is to do it later. When you are done writing, take a break. Go do something else. Give your brain a rest. Take a break for a minimum of 30 minutes. You’ll be amazed at what you see when you’ve given your brain a rest.

So there you have it — six simple rules for improving your writing. You have now been deputized; your mission (assuming you have chosen to accept it) is to stamp out bad writing!

With a little effort, we can resurrect effective writing from extinction.


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