One of the most common questions I get from coaching clients is, "how can I improve my writing quickly?"

There are lots of answers to that question. Working on any of the 6 traits of good writing will improve your product. Picking the one tactic that would deliver the most gains fastest requires a quick assessment from your manager, an editor or a writing coach like me!

Since this is my blog, I'll pick one. Let's focus on word choice as a lever for raising the quality of your writing, whether that's a report or a content marketing asset.

Writing Tip: Connotation matters

You can find a straight one-to-one substitute for some words, but often even words with similar definitions evoke different feelings that can sidetrack your work. Here's an example from a webinar sponsored by the Ross School of Management at the University of Michigan. The topic: the negative impact of one simple word in organizational development: talent.

Some people use "talent" as a kinder, gentler way to refer to an organization's human resources, a/k/a employees, staff, etc. As in "talent management strategies" or "we're seeking talented new hires".

But in general, most of us think of talent as a trait or affinity we're born with. Like being funny. Yes, you can learn to be a stand-up comedian, but if you don't have some natural ear or affinity for humor, the odds are against you.

"When someone is interpreting talent as an innate and unchangeable feature, using the term decreases the expectation that hard work will change anything -- persistence is less valuable, improvement is less possible," noted webinar guest Danny Southwick, a researcher with the High Performance Insitute in LA. This can de-motivate people to strive for improvement. Yikes!

Consider these two sentences and how they feel:

How to improve your business writing talent

How to improve your business writing skill

I don't know about you, but the second one just feels more attainable to me. And not simply because I'm trying to prove a point.

It doesn't stop there.

"Organizations that deem a certain ability as being talent-like are less likely to allocate resources to training existing employees and put more toward recruiting new ones," noted Southwick, whose graduate research focused on people's perceptions of talent.

So instead of promoting or transferring from within, they're just hiring new people. But, interestingly enough, when managers perceived that a good employee lacked skill, they were more than willing to develop the capabilities needed.

This example shows the importance of using clearly defined terms (even if you have to clearly define them for your audience) and being mindful of the connotations of important words in your content.

Of course, this situation also brings up the importance of having a diverse set of folks look over your work. People with different backgrounds, experiences, frames of reference, etc., can help you spot connotation errors (and a lot of other miscues) before you go live.

As you write this week, take a few minutes to go through your work and think about the connotation of words -- especially the really important ones.

3 more articles on how to be a better writer

  1. Boost impact with stronger verbs
  2. A 7-step process for better writing
  3. Use this strategy to improve your ideas