Written documents are how professionals convey their ideas to the peers, clients, and bosses. This means that professionals need to be skilled writers if they want to get ahead.
Unfortunately, I often find that even the smartest, most talented professionals lack the requisite writing skills. Here are my three most important lessons for getting better at business writing:
1. Plan ahead by writing an outline
Creating outlines can help you ease the intense mental burden of the writing process. While you write, you have to (1) organize your ideas into a coherent structure, (2) translate your ideas into words and sentences, and (3) re-evaluate whether each new sentence conforms to what you’ve already written. If you try to do all three steps at the same time, you’ll get stuck.
A better strategy is to separate these steps of the writing process, as much as possible. That lets your brain focus on one thing at a time, instead of having to juggle many different tasks.
You can accomplish the first step of the writing process—organizing your ideas into a coherent structure—by creating an outline before you actually start writing. Write down your key points and think about how they go together. Which points, or counterpoints, follow from your main arguments?
Although the step of creating an outline takes time, you’ll make up for it when you sit down to actually write. That’s what Professor Ronald Kellogg, an expert on the science of the writing process, found in his experiment. Professor Kellogg randomly assigned students into two groups, one that was told to outline for up to 10 minutes before writing, and another group that was told not to outline at all. Both groups wrote the same number of words per minute—even taking into account the time spent outlining. Independent scorers found that the “outline” group tended to write better papers.
2. Don’t try to write a perfect first draft
A lot of people get hung up trying to perfect the wording of every sentence before moving onto the next one. In other words, they try to write and revise at the same time—creating a very high mental workload.
Instead, you should be willing to write a very rough first draft. Try to capture the gist of your ideas, without worrying too much about whether you’re saying it in the best possible way. After writing a draft (of the entire document, or at least a significant chunk of it), you can come back and revise your original sentences.
Better yet, take a break after writing before coming back to analyze your wording. Go for a walk, or do some of that mindless busy-work that you’ve been putting off. After a mental break, you’ll be able to approach your draft with a fresh mind, which will help you come up with the new ideas that you need.
3. Structure your writing for skimmers
If you’re writing a lengthy document (more than a page or two), you should write in a style that makes it easy for time-sensitive readers to find the information that they need. These “skimmers” might be looking to pick up the main ideas, a specific example, or something else related to their own purpose for reading your document.
That means including an executive summary and/or a clear introduction that summarizes the main points of your document. Similarly, your conclusion should provide the key takeaways—without just summarizing what you’ve already written. In addition, you should make use of subtitles and headings to “direct” your readers to the sections most relevant to them.
Finally, organize each paragraph to make it easy for skimmers: start each one with a topic sentence that conveys what the paragraph will say. A skimmer should be able to understand the line of argument (or main points) of your document by reading only your topic sentences.
If you follow these three steps, you will write faster and more effectively – helping you become a more productive professional.
(Now that you’ve learned the basics, read more tips on developing your writing skills.)
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