Whether or not your title contains the word writer, chances are you spend a good deal of your time crafting documents to communicate or persuade–letters, proposals, reports, job or contract descriptions, presentations, newsletters, emails, copy for your website, etc.
Avoid the following seven common writing mistakes and your written documents will be clear, persuasive, and will deliver better results.
Mistake 1: Using big, impressive-sounding words
The English language contains roughly a million words. But the average adult knows only about 10,000 of them. Simple words work best.
Many people think their written work will appear more professional with academic or legal words: hereinafter, utilize, as per your request. But stuffy verbiage like this only distracts from your message, and in your work-related writing, your ultimate goals are usually clarity and persuasiveness. For example:
Do Not Write:
After endeavoring to ascertain the origins of the problems within the customer service department, I am of the opinion that these issues necessitate more training, and, as per your request for suggestions, I recommend that new programs be implemented forthwith.
After searching for the source of the problems in our customer service department, I think the issue is poor training. The solution, I believe, is a better training program.
Mistake 2: Using several eye-catching fonts and FORMATS
If you want to call attention to a point in a written document, write your point more strongly. Don’t dress it up with capitalization, italics, bold, underline, different fonts or colors, larger type or other visual enhancements.
This actually has the opposite effect of your goal: It makes everything on the page look less important and distracts from your message.
A good rule of thumb for your text in a document:
– Use a single font throughout the entire document
– Use only two type sizes (one for headers, the other for body copy)
– Use only one type of text enhancement: for example, bold for headers
Mistake 3: Writing big, blocky paragraphs
Imagine: You return to your office and find two letters on your desk. One is a series of short, two-and three-line paragraphs. The other is written as one long paragraph, over half a page, singe-spaced. Which will you read first?
Use short paragraphs.
Big, uninterrupted blocks of text are such a turn off visually that we often simply avoid reading them altogether.
Again, in business writing, your ultimate goal is to be clear and persuasive and you can’t get your message across clearly and persuasively if people don’t read what you have written.
As a general rule, try to keep your paragraphs to four lines—preferably no more than three.
Mistake 4: Writing too much
Ideally, your business document should be exactly as long as necessary to clearly and persuasively make your case and not a single word longer.
It probably comes in part from our training in school. This paper must be five pages, no less, but many business professionals erroneously believe that the longer their document is, the more important it will appear and the more effective it will be. Not true.
Remember, your reader’s time is important, and keeping your document to the minimum length possible shows you respect their time. Also, the longer your document is, the more of a chore it will seem. You don’t want your reader going into your document already disliking it.
A good strategy for keeping documents as short as possible:
1. When writing your first draft, include everything that seems relevant.
2. Go through your completed first draft, ruthlessly cutting anything that doesn’t make your case stronger or otherwise justify its space.
Mistake 5: Failing to summarize your document’s main points upfront
When writing any professional document—report—email—proposal—memo, assume your reader will be busy and will try to figure out your key points as quickly as they can. Many professionals write linearly, starting with an introduction, slowly building their case with fact upon fact, and then finally explaining their conclusion and the reason they put the document together. Don’t do this.
Instead, give away the punch line right up front. Start the document with your conclusions and then back them up with facts. This shows your reader that you respect her time, and it gives her the chance to read the meat of your document with much more context, and with an understanding of why you are including each point.
It also gives you more of an opportunity throughout the document to sell the reader on your argument, if that is what you want.
Mistake 6: Not summing it all up
Always remember, the key to good communication is clarity. At the end of any business document, you should summarize the main points you’ve made.
Like writing in short, easy-to-read paragraphs, providing a summary helps make your business writing clearer, shows respect for your readers time, and increases the likelihood your readers will act on your points.
A good rule, especially in longer documents like reports or proposals, is to include a section called Summary, Conclusion, or something similar that clearly restates your main points. For shorter documents, like a letter, you might include a final short wrap-up statement that restates your case.
Note: This summary at the end of your document should be in addition to the conclusion you write early in the document.
Mistake 7: Failing to include a clear call to action
Have you ever read a proposal, sales letter or email and thought, What am I supposed to do now? Don’t assume the next step for your reader is clear, make it explicit. Some examples of clear calls to action:
– Please respond to this email with your thoughts about the new campaign.
– Email firstname.lastname@example.org and Ill send you an electronic copy of this report.
– Call me at (XXX) XXX-XXXX to discuss how our agencies can work together.
You have written your document making sure to avoid all the common pitfalls above. Now it’s time to ask yourself a few key questions as you re-read what you’ve written before sending it out:
1. Is my document organized logically and easy to read?
2. Is the conclusion of my document clear and stated at the beginning?
3. Have I persuaded my readers to take my desired action?
4. Have I included a clear call to action so readers can take action?
Just by keeping these questions in mind as you review what you have written, you’ll create clearer, more persuasive documents and get the results you want.