Almost one-third of workers do not meet the writing requirements of their positions, according to a survey by the College Board’s National Commission on Writing.

Before any of you get smug with your writing acumen, keep in mind that most workers do not need to write more than a sentence or two to get their job done. For example, I bet burger flippers are meeting their job’s writing requirements by a higher margin than one third. My guess is that at the typical email-intensive office, the percentage of less than competent writers is well above the 50% mark.

Most of the writing we do at work is in the format of an email or a presentation. In both cases, the best way to get yourself into the small percentage of competent writers is to write short. The faster and more concisely you get to your point, the more likely your reader will understand your message. Here are some self-editing tricks for writing shorter:

1. Write lists. People love reading lists. They are faster and easier to read than unformatted writing, and they are more fun. If you can’t list your ideas then you aren’t organized enough to send them to someone else.

2. Think on your own time.
Most of us think while we write. But people don’t want to read your thinking process; they want to see the final result. Find your main point in each paragraph and delete everything else. If someone is dying to know your logic, they’ll ask.

3. Keep paragraphs short.
Your idea gets lost in a paragraph that’s more than four or five lines. Two lines is the best length if you really need your reader to digest each word.

4. Write like you talk.
Each of us has the gift of rhythm when it comes to sentences, which includes a natural economy of language. But you must practice writing in order to transfer your verbal gifts to the page. Start by avoiding words you never say. For example, you would never say “in conclusion” when you are speaking to someone so don’t use it when you write.

5. Delete.
When you’re finished, you’re not finished: cut 10% of the words. I do this with every column I write. Sometimes, in fact, I realize that I can cut 25% of the words, and then my word count isn’t high enough to be a column and I have to think of more things to say. Luckily, you don’t have to write for publication, so you can celebrate if you cut more than 10%. Note: It is cheating to do this step before you really think you’re done.

6. Refuse to be boring.
Any topic can be interesting, but not if the writer is not interested. Don’t write about a topic just because you think you should – it’s unlikely your reader will feel passionate about reading when you did not feel passionate about writing. Gen Y gets this intuitively and maybe that’s why it’s so easy to hire essay-writing experts.

7. Avoid adjectives and adverbs.
The fastest way to a point is to let the facts speak for themselves. Adjectives and adverbs are your interpretation of the facts. If you present the right facts, you won’t need to throw in your interpretation. For example, you can say, “Susie’s project is going slowly.” Or you can say, “Susie’s project is behind schedule.” If you use the first sentence, you’ll have to use the second sentence, too, but the second sentence encompasses the first. So as you cut your adjectives and adverbs, you might even be able to cut all the sentences that contain them.

I just checked to see if I have modifiers in the column. I do. But I think I use them well. You will think this, too, about your own modifiers, when you go back over your writing. But I have an editor, and you don’t, and I usually use a modifier to be funny, and you do not need to be funny in professional emails. So get rid of your adverbs and adjectives, really.

Avoid telltale signs of a rube.
Passive voice. Almost no one ever speaks this way. And on top of that, when you write it you give away that you are unclear about who is doing what because the nature of the passive voice is to obscure the person taking the action. Check yourself: search for all instances of “by” in your document. If you have a noun directly after “by” then it’s passive voice. Change it.

Everyone wants to feel passion about their job, but passion and pay do not always go hand in hand, and often they are inversely related. The trick for many of us is to figure out how to balance the love of our life with the food on our table.

Bill Hewett is the bass player for the band, the Modeles, but he does not consider himself a big risk taker when it comes to putting food on the table. So he knew he was in trouble when fire was banned from street performances on his favorite street for performing. Before that, he had been making $500 in a weekend juggling flaming rings.

“It wasn’t easy work,” he says. “I’d have to stake out my spot at 8 a.m. even though I didn’t start juggling until 6 p.m. I used to let other performers have my spot until my show began. The best juggling spot was a place a few jugglers have held for forever, and if you don’t get a big enough crowd, they hassle you for wasting their space. So my spot was at a newsstand.”

After the fire ban, his income fell and he had to supplement it by working at a grocery store. But when the juggling season ended in the fall, the salary of a bagger didn’t cut it. So he took a computer job at the New England Foundation for the Arts. Bill didn’t really have all the skills the company needed, but the company didn’t have the money to pay for the skills they needed, so it worked out well for everyone.

Barbara Reinhold, a psychologist and the head of the Career and Executive Development Program at Smith College, encounters people with the passion-pay dilemma at all levels of the workforce.

“There’s no escaping the need to do what you love as part of your paid or unpaid work,” she says. “But like so much of life, the secret is in the timing.”

And Reinhold recommends that people make money first and then follow their dreams, “as long as you’ve been careful not to grow your tastes with your income. Many people spend and spend to try to forget that the lucrative work they’re doing doesn’t really fit them. This unfortunate condition usually results in a bad case of the golden handcuffs.

“Young people who make a deal with themselves about eventually going where their hearts would lead them and live frugally can have a much easier time of it than those who forget the frugality, or those who don’t develop the skills and discipline required to make money until later in life.”

I ask Bill about the possibility of postponing his dreams of being a musician, and he says he can’t imagine not making music. “I’d do it anyway,” he says, “for myself. So I want to see where I can take it.” But it’s clear that his dream has limits.

He makes $34,000 a year as a computer guy, and I ask him if he’d leave the job if he could make $40,000 a year touring with his band. He says no. He is certain he could make a lot more money as a computer technician in the future. And he sees it as a job he could keep his whole life, and grow with it.

He sees the creativity required to solve computer problems as similar to the creativity involved in music. And he is more skeptical of life on the road: “I couldn’t live off that $40,000 a year for more than a few years. Right now, I don’t worry about food, but sometimes I worry about strings for my bass.”

It is no small feat to get band members to talk to a career columnist. A bass player explained that it would be death to her image to talk about her job to the press. And Bill himself cited a friend who has actually worked for years as a consultant to save a truckload of money and is now spending six months focusing on his band. “Don’t mention his band, though. He’d be embarrassed if people knew he owned a condo.”
Meanwhile, the Modeles continue to make headway in the hyper-competitive world of almost-breaking bands. Bill is a modest guy. When I ask him how he knows his band isn’t a dud, he says, “When we play in upstate New York, people get excited to see us.”

Of course, the music industry is not known for signing a band to a label after hearing them in Utica, but one guitar player (who said his band is gaining traction in the underground and therefore cannot be mentioned in an above-ground career column) reports that the Modeles are well-liked by people who have jobs.

I met a not-friend at a not-cool-but-not-cheesy restaurant. I was networking, because this is what you must do to further your career. Even if you hate it you have to do it. I did not wear work clothes, because even though networking is work, you’re not supposed to look like you’re on the job. I knew we weren’t really friends, because I wasn’t wearing my really ratty overalls.

We discussed segmented marketing, but in a cool, maybe-we’re-not-working kind of way. For example, we talked about who is using Napster now, and about which bands get downloaded most. We moved a little in the direction of which bands we each like, but my not-friend didn’t share my musical tastes, so we danced away from the topic quickly.

If I were really looking for a friend, I would have gone full-steam ahead into topics that may be controversial, but can weed out inappropriate people: politics, money, sex. These are make-or-break topics. But I could not afford a “break” on this occasion, because this person was one of my best connections in the advertising world.

Early in my career, my boss was having trouble because someone who reported to her hit on her, and was upset that she said no. The story got out, and soon the whole office knew about it. She pulled me into her office one evening and said, “What do people think of what’s happened with ____?” At the time, I was flattered that I was the one she pulled aside. Now I realize that I have to be extra careful to edit myself as I go. Complete honesty is not completely good: It alienates people — specifically, me.

The not-friend I went to dinner with asked me if I liked her yellow scarf. I thought it was gross, but I was afraid to tell her the truth. (In fact, I’m not even telling you the real color of the scarf, in case she ends up reading this.) Maybe if I told her the scarf was awful, we would have immediately become good friends, and she would always love me for my honesty. But maybe not. It was the maybe-not part that kept me from telling her the truth — because I would rather have a good network than a good friend. (I don’t need a Rolodex full of friends; I do need a Rolodex full of contacts: people who will have dinner with me at innocuous locations and help me navigate my career.)

Still, I wanted to tell my not-friend that I hated her scarf. I want to show people who I really am. I want to see if they would still like me. I want to distribute surveys (to be put on file later in my Rolodex) that ask people if they enjoyed my honesty, and if they would be willing to do favors for me now that they know the real me.

Instead, I ordered a cosmopolitan because she ordered one — even though I don’t really drink. And I told her little things about me that she didn’t already know, so she felt like she was getting to know me.

I did not tell her that I find the networking so exhausting, my Rolodex is actually shrinking from atrophy. I decided that maybe a good step would be to buy her a new scarf — a way to express my true feelings in a positive way. If I could only be more positive.

I told her things that are so banal that they would annoy you. When we parted I pretended to take the train home and instead of going straight home I bought a milkshake at a diner and sat in a booth decompress. The most tiring part of networking is having to be clever and interested for so long. And the cruel truth of the work world is that people who love to network don’t need to do it.

People like me, who hate networking, need to be diligent. I tell myself I have to endure one of these nights each month. I remind myself that I might meet the perfect person to help me later, that networking is like money in the bank. So even if someone has terrible taste in music and scarves, I work hard when I’m with her, because you never know when networking will pay off, but I really believe that it always does, even after all my complaining.