Monday, October 12, 2009

Simple Steps to Better Writing

For an industry that readily admits its limitations when it comes to communication skills, it's interesting how often our business and technical success is determined by our ability to communicate.

For this post, let's focus on writing. We write proposals that enable us to win new work--or not. We write correspondence that can help sway a regulator's position, potentially saving millions of dollars in costs. We write reports that recommend specific solutions and solicit the buy-in of critical stakeholders.

Even our best technical ideas can flounder because of weak writing. Or succeed because of strong writing. Which is it in your firm?

Developing competency in writing takes considerable effort and experience. But there are a few relatively simple steps you can take to yield immediate improvement:

Start with an outline. Most technical professionals don't, and it shows. In developing an outline, first clarify what you want your document to achieve. Inform? Influence? Instruct? Weak writing often starts with a lack of clear purpose. Once you know what you're trying to accomplish, identify three to five key messages needed to achieve that purpose. Then arrange your content to support those main points. This is a departure from the common "pull the table of contents from the last one" approach. Perhaps it's time to rethink how you organize your documents.

Use simple, concise language. Much technical writing is plagued by overly long sentences, vague wording, and overuse of technical jargon. Try to keep sentences to no longer than 20 words. Avoid long paragraphs as well. Minimize the use of jargon; use commonly known words instead where possible. State your ideas as clearly and simply as possible.

Use Microsoft Word's grammar checking feature. While it's not perfect, this feature can help you improve the clarity of your writing. I also recommend that you make use of Word's readability statistics feature (to access it, click on the Microsoft Office Button > Word Options > Proofing > Show readability statistics). Strive for the following:
  • Passive Sentences (should be no higher than 30% for technical writing)
  • Flesch Reading Ease (60-70 recommended; should at least be over 50)
  • Flesch-Kincade Grade Level (7.0-8.0 recommended; no higher than 10.0)

Put the most important information first. This is the classic journalistic standard of the "inverted pyramid." Start each section and subsection with the most critical information first, followed by supporting information in descending order of importance. This increases the chance that the reader, who likely isn't reading your document word by word, will capture the key content.

Always include an executive summary. One study found that only 10% of managers read the body of technical reports, while 100% read the executive summary. This is where you want to synthesize your most important observations, findings, conclusions, and recommendations. The length of the executive summary will vary depending on the size of the document, but keep it as short as possible.

Use ample headings, subheadings, and bullets. Long blocks of text impair reader interest and decrease readability. Break up text into shorter sections with informative headings. Present complex or multiple issues in bullet form rather than long paragraphs.

Graphically present key information where possible. Figures, graphs, drawings, and tables (if not too complex) are effective ways to communicate key messages, especially to readers who will not read the document in detail.

Have someone review your draft. This is commonly done with reports and proposals, but is often neglected with other writing that serves key objectives. Correspondence with clients, regulators, and other outside parties should be always be reviewed by someone other than the author. Same for important internal memos and correspondence. And don't overlook email, which has become the predominant way we convey written messages.

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