Show your clients, vendors and colleagues you have the write stuff
By Dr. Nancy Tuten
Web content, emails, newsletters, and social media posts require us to write well. Small business owners often can’t afford to hire professional writers and editors, yet we know that our words matter. Here are a few pro tips for professional writing.
First, tackle the big issues.
Before we write the first word, we should answer two critical questions. First, “What is the purpose of this message?”
Writing well is difficult and time consuming, and we will waste that time and energy if we don’t first determine the one overarching idea we want our readers to take away.
What do we want them to believe or feel or do when they have read what we’re about to write?
For example, if we are writing a social media post to announce a new hire, is it more important to tout that person’s past experiences or the specifics of the new role? Should we emphasize the individual or the fact that our business is growing and needs a new hire? Should the post include some sort of call to action, or is it simply an opportunity to remind our readers of the services or products we offer?
Without a clearly defined and narrow focus, we miss the opportunity to maximize each interaction with our current and potential clients.
Organization and Development
Knowing our purpose guides us in decisions about two other critical components of good writing: organization and development. If we know the intent of a particular message, we can make better decisions about which details to include, which to leave out, and in what order we should present them.
The purpose of our message also drives both the structure and the order of our sentences. Sentences and paragraphs should flow logically and coherently to guide readers toward the conclusion we want them to reach.
The second question is equally important: “Who are the readers of this message?” We can’t lead our readers to the conclusion we hope they will reach if we don’t consider their perspectives.
What do they already know about the subject of our message, and what do we need to tell them? What emotional or practical connection do they already have to the subject matter? What are their needs and concerns? They are all just as busy as we are: how can we hold their attention?
We have to remember that we are not the intended audience, and the perspective from which we might carelessly and instinctively present our message may not be the best way to get the response we seek.
We must picture our ideal readers and frame our message in a way that will most successfully guide them to the purpose we have in mind. If our message is too long or seems irrelevant, they will stop reading.
Once we have considered our audience, focused our message, made a compelling and persuasive case, and kept the reader’s attention, the final step is to edit our writing before we send it out into the world.
Unfortunately, we are the worst editors of our own writing because we know what we meant to say; we don’t always recognize when we have been unclear or hear when a sentence is awkward. We may not notice a misspelled or missing word. The difficulty in seeing errors is compounded when our work is fresh.
If at all possible, we should put a draft away and review it later (a day or more later if possible, but at least a few hours) before hitting “send” (that magic button that allows us instantly to see all our errors).
One helpful strategy is to ask another careful writer (one who is also knowledgeable about the subject matter) to be an editing partner. Both writers agree to read one another’s work with fresh eyes. If at all possible, editing partners should read the work out loud so the writers can hear problems with sentence structure or the logical flow of ideas. If the reader stumbles through a sentence, it probably needs work.
Of course, it is also important to make sure our professional writing employs what is known as standard written American English or SWAE. These are the grammar, mechanics, and usage issues addressed in most of my archived articles.
As Shakespeare once wrote, “[A]ye, there’s the rub.”
Even if we did pay attention in school, some of the rules have changed. To make matters worse, some of the rules we have learned through the years aren’t really rules at all (yes, you can start a sentence with because; no, every paragraph is not required to have a specified number of sentences).
When we fail to follow the conventions of SWAE, our readers are often more focused on our mistakes than on our message. Yet the number of issues we need to know can be overwhelming:
- Is the confidential information to be kept “between you and I” or “between you and me”?
- Will the presentation be made by “Ellen and me” or by “Ellen and myself”?
- In response to a question about two proposals, should I say that “neither of them is acceptable” or “neither of them are acceptable”?
Some grammatical issues are consistent across all style guides (it’s always “between you and me,” for example), while on some issues style guides disagree (do we use the Oxford comma all the time or only to avoid ambiguity, for example?).
At some point, especially given the fast pace of news cycles and the constant need to post on social media, we have to let go and launch our message.
But if we have considered our audience and purpose, if we have used those two important details to craft an organized and compelling message, and if we have edited carefully, our written words will represent us well and enhance the success of our business endeavors.
Professionals understand that the written word makes a powerful and lasting impression. It may not be fair, but it is nonetheless true: if our writing appears less than competent and professional, potential clients may wonder about our competence in other areas. To improve the quality of our writing, we have to invest both time and mental bandwidth, but these are assets wisely spent in this important pursuit.