The good word: clear, logical writing can help your career

Each day, huge waves of letters and memos wash over the desks of corporate America. If you want your communications to stay afloat in the ocean of words, you may need to polish your writing style.

In 1979, Fortune magazine talked to many successful business executives about what business schools should teach. Executive after executive said, in frustration, "Teach them to write better." They went on to say that "Better" didn't mean fancy. It meant clear, brief and logical.

The only way some people know you is through your writing. It can be your most frequent point of contact, or your only one, with people important to your career -- a potential employer, your own top management, customers, etc.

It is how you make things happen, sell an idea or get invited in for an interview. To those men and women, our writing is you. It reveals how your mind works.

Here are a few ideas that will keep your writing crisp and concise:

Before you touch pen to paper, ask yourself "Why am I writing? What do I want them to do, think or feel?" These simple questions will always help you get right to the heart of the matter.

Make an outline
Sketch an outline, starting with your goal and list the major, supportive points beneath it. Think of the format as an upside-down pyramid. Like the first paragraph in the newspaper story, tell the readers what the communication is about and how it affects them.

Not this: "On February 20th you wrote to me asking about our new expense report procedure. You mentioned that you had not received your refund. I spoke..."

Rather: "Your refund for the business trip you took January 16-23, 1984, should arrive by the end of the week. I hope the following information clears up any remaining confusion about the new expense report procedure."

From your outline, write a rough draft and then put it away overnight. The next day you can revise and proof your draft without confusing what's in your mind with what's on paper.

Boil down what you want to say. If you're writing a memo, stick to one subject only.

Be precise. Instead of writing, "The question arose..." say, "Janet asked..."

Another example: Rather than "slightly behind schedule," say "two days late."

Vary short sentences, paragraphs and words with longer ones. Short sentences pack a lot of punch because they are more prominent. Paragraphs should rarely be more than three or four sentences long. Always use a short word rather than a long one, except when a longer one would be more precise.

Use active voice
Use the active voice, not the passive. This can be achieved, in part, by using the words "I, me" and "you."

For example, "It is recommended" can be changed to "We recommend." And, "If an answer cannot be secured" becomes "If you don't get an answer." Finally, change "It is requested that you send a representative to our meeting."

Write as you would talk. Don't try to impress with long words or jargon. Don't hide behind phrases like "pursuant to our conversation." (Say, "After our conversation," or "as a result of our conversation.")

Here are some more favorites: "Be advised that..." ("I would like you to..."), and "Attached please find..." ("I have attached...").

When you are finished writing, read it out loud. Your ear will pick up errors in punctuation, flow and clarity. It's also a good idea to let someone else read your letter or memo before you send it. A fresh pair of eyes will pick out things that you may be too close to see.

Finally, use your dictionary. It's the best friend a writer has.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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