If you’re like most people, your amount of time spent in teleconferences has skyrocketed over the past months. So too has your amount of time spent writing emails. Sales pitches. Proposals. Slack/Teams/Flock messages.
Communicating effectively in writing is not only more necessary, it’s even more important, since it often serves as virtually (pun intended) a central history and record for ideas, projects, timelines, accountability, etc.
Which is a problem, since most people don’t think of themselves as good writers.
But with business communication, craft and style are irrelevant. What matters are results. Writing is only good writing when it gets things done.
Need to write an important email? Do this:
1. “Do I always have a clear goal?”
Sound obvious? It’s not; think about how many times you read an email and think, “OK. But what am I supposed to do with that?”
Maybe you want to instruct. Or sell. Or convince. Or inform. Or build a relationship. Whatever it is, you want something. (If you don’t, why are you writing?)
Decide exactly what you hope to accomplish. That drives everything.
2. “Can I always summarize in several bullet points?”
Forget complete sentences and paragraphs. Break your goal into bullet points.
Announcing a new process? Jot down the two or three main reasons, along with two or three resulting major benefits.
3. “Do I always choose the right structure?”
Your first sentence should provide a clear goal and explanation. “Last week, we missed four customer ship dates. Starting this Tuesday, August 25, we will implement the following changes to our fulfillment process.”
As for the rest of the email’s format? Roughly speaking, use lists (bullets or numbers) when you have discrete points to make. (Using them makes the writing process much easier.)
Just keep in mind that lists seem impersonal; if your goal is to say thanks, show appreciation, or congratulate the reader, skip the lists. No one wants to read the top 10 reasons their speech was awesome.
And don’t force a list. If each point can’t at least partly stand on its own without lengthy explanation, your bullets aren’t tight enough.
Otherwise, make lists your friends. Lists make the writing process a lot easier while making your main points more memorable.
And they make emails — especially long ones — much more scannable and easier to digest.
4. “Do I always use short, simple words?”
Your goal is to be understood, not show off.
Use “buy” instead of “acquire.” “Plan” instead of “formulate.” “Small” instead of “marginal.” “Pay” instead of “remunerate.”
5. “Do I always use active verbs?”
Start. Stop. Change. Revise. Reject. Whatever your goal, it’s to do something important.
Which means the stronger the verb, the better.
6. “Do I always strip out qualifiers?”
Phrases like “I think,” “I feel,” and “I wonder” are qualifiers. Instead of boldly saying “We need to increase hourly wages,” saying “I think we need to increase hourly wages” gives you a way out.
Good writing takes a stand. If you decide wages need to go up, say so. If you decide a process needs to change, say so.
If you aren’t sure and hope to spark discussion, by all means say “I think.” Otherwise, say what you want or plan to do.
7. “Do I eliminate anything that feels like style?”
Think of writing as part of your personal brand? Fine — but keep in mind your personal style is not your personal style if you have to think about it.
Instead, just write like you talk.
Only without the “like” and “right?” and “you know.”
8. “Do I always cut?”
Rough drafts are naturally wordy. So now, go back and start cutting. Edit so all that’s left are clear nouns, active verbs, and short, tight sentences.
And make sure you didn’t lead the email with excessive context. If your goal is to announce that certain employees will continue to work remotely through the end of the year, don’t include a brief history of Covid-19 and its effects on your business, your industry, and the workplace in general.
Your employees know all that. (All too well.) What they want to know is what, when, and how.
9. “Do I always make sure the goal is perfectly clear?”
Struggle to write a particular email and you might assume that means you’re not a good writer.
Nope. Struggling to find the right words isn’t a sign that you don’t know how to say something. Struggling to find the right words means you haven’t figured out what you want to say.
Once you know what you want to say, then all you have to do is say it.
If the reader can’t easily tell what you want them to do — to make a decision, to take certain actions, to respond by a certain time, or to just to feel complimented or appreciated — then you have failed.
So don’t hit Send until you’re sure you made that point, simply, clearly, and concisely.
Because the only measure of good writing is that it gets things done.