Everyone writes. But not everyone writes effectively.
That’s not to say everyone can’t learn to write effectively. Or even that learning to write effectively need be difficult.
Writing is a skill we all need.
For all the online assistance we now have at our fingertips, the ability to write without digital hand-holding is still extremely valuable. It saves us time and helps maintain a consistently clear standard of communication.
From firing off a quick email to putting together an annual report, we always strive for clarity in what we write, and desire to use words as effectively as possible to get our point across and convey important information.
Sloppy written communication, at any level, can cause untold confusion and seriously slow us down. We’ve probably all suffered at the hands of unclear and ineffective writing at some point in our personal and professional lives.
Luckily, effective writing is a skill we can all acquire without too much trouble.
Follow the rules, keep things simple, and focus on the message. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that.
For more detail, keep reading.
1) Follow the rules
Language is bound by rules. And the sharing of these rules is what allows us to communicate. When writing, following the established rules and being systematic in your expression is the surest way to achieve the goal of being understood.
When we’re talking about effective writing what we’re not talking about is creative writing. Creative writing often plays with and subverts the established rules to produce entertaining effects. Effective writing does not.
The most important aspect of writing, grammar is how we refer to the set of rules which govern how we construct sentences. (It’s simply fundamental to effective writing).
Grammar encompasses syntax (word order) and punctuation, two particularly important aspects of effective writing.
Also important, though not considered part of grammar per se, is spelling.
In the quest for efficiency and increased productivity, grammar and spelling are often sacrificed. This can be a serious mistake.
The most fatal error we can make in writing is to produce unclear expressions, leaving the reader baffled. This will cause them to waste time in trying to understand what it is the writer meant, and increases the probability of the message being misunderstood.
A simple example
Effective grammar and spelling:
Can you just update the dates and redeliver? My manager is pleased with it.
Ineffective grammar and spelling:
My manager is pleased but can you change daes?
These two examples may look quite different on the surface, but on closer inspection they are the same message. The grammar and spelling differences (and errors) are actually very minor, but have a huge impact here.
The difference is that the effective example has been written out with more care and attention, taking very little extra time but radically increasing the clarity of the message’s meaning, reducing the chance of any misunderstanding or the need for decoding by the reader.
(If you haven’t yet received a version of the ineffective example in an email from a colleague – or worse – count yourself lucky.)
It is a mistake to think that ‘style’ is the preserve of creative writers.
All writing has style, and style can be a key determinant in whether or not your writing is effective.
Long and complex sentences are simply harder to understand and process. They may be good for writers who wish to pack in great depth to their ruminations, but most likely they will not be necessary for you.
On the other hand, reducing your written utterances to little more than bullet points can leave the reader lacking the necessary information. It’s easier to read sentences than blunt statements, which is why we don’t tend to speak just a few words at a time during conversations.
Writing in a recognizable, human way gives the reader a sense of the writer’s personality, therefore communicating more than just simple commands or statements, increasing the clarity of the overall message.
A simple example
Great, we look forward to meeting on Thursday. 2pm works for us so long as it gives you the chance to prepare the following (this will ensure we get the most from the meeting):
Draft of the plan (approx. 2 pages)
Questions for us
Thanks for organizing! But do let us know if you need more time to prepare.
I would very much like to meet on Thursday as you suggest yes. 2pm is good and coming to you, but was hoping you could sort a few things for the meeting, an agenda, a rough draft of the plan 2 pages approx, prepare any questions you have for me and my colleagues. Thanks for organizing everything for us and we look forward.
Though they contain the same message, the effective example appears longer, as it takes up more space, but is in fact comprised of less words than the ineffective example (63 vs 61). The effective example also manages to convey more information about what the writer needs, and about what they think and feel, including a more genuine sense of enthusiasm for the meeting.
The effective example uses a more personal style (through choice of words and similar expression to actual speech) in combination with a more functional style (shorter sentence, brackets, and bullet points).
- Take your time when writing
- Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and ask yourself whether the message can be easily understood
- Consult online grammar guides and common mistakes
- Develop a style to your writing that reflects something of your personality and conveys information efficiently
2) Keep things simple
Writing is simple.
Or, at least, it should be.
Effectively conveying a message through writing is all about writing carefully, saying only what you mean to say in the way that you mean to say it.
Using a tone of voice helps focus your writing. Broadly speaking, you are likely to employ either a formal or informal tone, depending on the context.
A formal tone should read much less like real speech, and should strive to convey meaning precisely. This is the kind of writing that official reports should be written in.
An informal tone is a lot like real speech in written form, but should still always be clear and concise. It can use personality and emotion to convey information, and is the kind of writing we use for writing long emails or letters.
It doesn’t have to get more sophisticated than that.
More than anything, being aware of tone helps transform what is swirling around your head into writing. Ineffective writing occurs most often when words come unfiltered and unedited straight from a writer’s train of thought – recognizable for it’s almost complete lack of tone.
Carefully selecting words and shaping phrases to match your desired tone will result in simple, effective writing.
All good writing is well structured.
The best writing feels fluid, seamlessly transitioning from one point to the next, sucking the reader in and captivating them with each and every word. This only happens thanks to good structure.
Structuring your writing is about putting it in order, ensuring that the reader is given clear, relevant, and complementary information in a logical and fluid sequence.
It’s easiest to plot out a quick plan on paper or in a document before you put fingertip to keyboard, but you may (for shorter pieces of writing) be able to simply arrange it in your head before you start.
Structuring your writing breaks it down to a simple succession of points, making it all the easier for the reader to digest. And all the easier for you to write.
Three elements essential to any structured piece of writing are:
- Introducing what it is you will say with your writing
- The main body of the message you are communicating
- Concluding upon what it is that you intended to say with your writing
- When writing, refer to examples or samples that use the desired tone
- Never spill your thoughts directly into your writing without editing or filtering
- Always have a structure in mind before undertaking substantial pieces writing
- Break your writing up into clear points and messages
3) Focus on the message
With our writing we are saying a succession of things. (Yes, it’s actually beneficial to think of it in such simple terms as these).
Therefore, as we write our priority and focus should be on what we are trying to say.
With a firm structure in place, this is easy (see previous section, ‘Structure’). In unstructured writing, it’s no less crucial.
Get to the point
Including irrelevant information is one of the most common pitfalls of effective writing.
When we are just writing our thoughts, unfiltered and unedited, everything we are saying is presented as one undifferentiated package, regardless of what we actually want to say. This is why we must convert what we are thinking into writing in order to communicate effectively (see previous section, ‘Tone’).
Before we write we need to isolate what it is we are saying, and write only that.
If we need to make three points, then we should write only what we need to in order to make those three points convincingly and efficiently. And each of those three points should be clearly differentiated from each other.
Once each point is made, the job is done.
Effective writing is efficient writing.
To write clearly we need clarity in our own minds.
If we can’t think clearly about what it is we need (or want) to say, then we have no hope at all of writing it.
Writing effectively involves writing with focus, concentrating on the how, wh, and what of our communication.
When writing longer pieces, it is extremely beneficial to find some piece of mind. Try to work in an environment that is free from distractions, and consider limiting your access to websites and notifications that will draw your attention elsewhere and destroy your focus.
It can be extremely useful for some people to write in chunks of 25 minutes, focusing intently on the writing during this time and letting off a little steam in between writing periods.
- Concentrate on the point you are making, and make only that point
- Cut, discard and resist the urge to include irrelevant information or reflections
- Write in a calm and distraction-free environment, perhaps with limited access to the internet
- Consider writing in focused intervals of 25 minutes or longer
If in doubt, here are some general tips for improving the effectiveness of your writing:
- Only use words that you understand. Don’t be tempted to use long or uncommon words because they sound more impressive. If you aren’t 100% sure of the meaning, use a simpler word that you feel familiar with.
- Write short sentences and short paragraphs. It’s always easy for a reader to lose their train of thought when they are faced with dense text.
- Read your writing out loud to yourself. This will help you locate any mistakes or anything which sounds too complex or unclear.
- Read through your writing as you write. The editing process should be ongoing, and you should always read over paragraphs and sentences as you finish them, only moving on when you’re content. At the end of the process, proofread the writing as a whole to ensure it flows and is free from error.
- Read your writing in another medium. For example, if it is written on the computer try printing it out.
- Don’t include jargon or unnecessary technical terms unless you are completely sure that everyone reading them will understand them.
- Ask for help. Even experienced writers need editors and proofreaders to get the best out of their writing. If you have something really important to write, get a friend or colleague to check through it and offer advice.