A colleague wasn't getting good results from emails and Slack messages. They knew their writing wasn't effective didn't know why. When they spoke directly to someone, they were very effective. When they asked me to take a look, two things stood out to immediately:
- Long sentences and wordiness
Be more effective with fewer words
When we use too many words our sentences can get really long. That reduces clarity because we have to wade through a lot to find the meaning. And it's frustrating -- the written equivalent of that friend who takes forever to get to the point of some story he's telling. Concision and sentence structure have always been important, of course, but they're even more vital when people are reading on smaller screens. Have you tried reading your emails on an iWatch? Get tips for reader-friendly writing.
Luckily, wordiness and sentences are easy enough to fix with a little added attention after you write. Yeah, don't worry so much about them when you're drafting. Just get all the words out of your head and into the doc. Then cut 20% of the words. Right off the bat. Just go through and prune anything you can. That right there does wonders for tightening up your writing. If you want to, you can make another pass through to look specifically at the sentences -- where can you combine, split or restructure? You might also notice some opportunities to deploy better verbs, like ones that describe the action and how it's being done ("sprinted" for "ran quickly") or are more efficient like "convey" for "get across".
Write in the voice you want people to hear
Tone -- the way our writing sounds -- is a direct result of word choice and sentence fluency. The challenge is, it's hard for us to hear our own tone. First, we know what our intent is, so we don't listen closely to how it impacts our writing. Second, when we read our own writing silently to ourselves, our brains process that information differently than when we read it aloud. When we read aloud, our brain ears are driving the intake, not just our eyes. It's easier to uncover problems with voice and tone when we vocalize our writing.
Here's an example that I based on a sentence my colleague wrote:
- If it's not too late, I'm thinking -- if it would be possible, please -- to take a look at X for our accounting solution instead of Y?
The story I make up about the person who wrote this is that they're not confident about their position in the organization and on the team. “Thinking” and the conditional “would be possible” don’t convey certainty or importance. Like maybe it's no big deal if we do or not. The “please” as positioned weakens the request and conveys subordinance. Why's that a problem? The person writing this is a partner in the company.
- Can we evaluate X as an accounting solution if it's not too late?
The story I make up about this person is that they're confident and direct. The simpler language states what they want and that it's important. Moving “if it's not too late” at the end puts the most important information first. The strongest is to just ask the question and leave off the timeframe.
I read the real sentence to my colleague and they groaned. "I know I wrote that, but it doesn't sound like I meant for it to," they lamented. They had wanted to acknowledge that it might be too late or a pain, they wanted to ask.
3 ways to make your writing more effective
To recap, you can keep your writing from sabotaging your effectiveness with three strategies:
- Cut 20% of everything you write. Yes, even short stuff.
- Revise for wordiness and sentence structure.
- Read aloud and revise to make the writing sound more like you want/need it to.
I work with folks every day to identify their specific opportunities for improvement and to learn and internalize strategies for operationalizing them. Click here if you'd like to learn more about writing coaching.