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.

7 replies
  1. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Thanks, Stephanie. You bring up the point of linking style. It’s still early in my blogging life, and I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad to link to one’s own commentary. For example, at a cocktail party, quoting one’s own writing is so boorish.

    But I noticed that Techdirt (http://www.techdirt.com) references itself all the time, as a way to show a cointinuing conversation. I like that.

    Add that to the list of things that are social genius online and socially incompetent offline.

  2. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I just came across this and appreciate it. I am relatively new to blogging and in the midst of finding the right voice, tone and really rethinking step 1 – what is my audience. What started out as a place for me to journal is now evolving into somethihg else. I find that I enjoy writing more than I had thought. One thing I enjoy about your posts is your rhythm and I was pleased to see that addressed above.

  3. Maureen Maloney
    Maureen Maloney says:

    Penelope,
    You are absolutely my favorite blogger. You actually give REAL advice that is GOOD and USEFUL. (Yeah, I’ve read a lot of stupid “How to write better” blogs)
    Plus you talk about your wacked out life, and don’t try to pretend that you are the Martha Stewart of career advice.
    Rock on sister!

  4. Trevor Ambrose
    Trevor Ambrose says:

    I love the write like you talk point. When I normally write I try to hard to find words that I would not normally use in a conversation. This will help me next time I write an email, letter or proposal.

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