We are constantly told about the value of math and hard skills like engineering and programming. These skills are valuable because they take time to learn and are in high demand. Oftentimes, people learn these skills at the expense of becoming an excellent writer. This results in a demand for people who can write well.
Ideas and information need to be communicated. This applies regardless of the sector in which you work. Employers are constantly looking for people who can pull this off. For example, USA Today lists strong writing skills as the #1 “Skill to Cultivate” and UPS tells employees they need to be able to “investigate, analyze and report their findings in a professional manner.” These skills matter.
So, what can you do to improve your writing skills? Here are 3 ways to start.
1. Know your audience
Your audience will determine your writing style. Writing for marketing requires a totally different approach than writing management analysis, and both call for a different style than academic writing. Then there’s creative writing, which is in an entirely different ballpark.
You have to strike a balance when it comes to how much you elaborate upon for your audience. If you assume they know too much, then you write over their heads. If you assume they know too little, then you talk down to them.
For example, even in academic writing, authors should write as if their readers are intelligent people who are not familiar with the topic. In marketing writing, authors should assume their readers are not interested in the product, and so authors should write to make them interested in it.
Don’t insult your audience and don’t confuse them. Walk a line.
2. Have a structure
While different styles call for different writing structures, it is important to be aware of the necessity of a structure to what you are writing. A good structure creates a flow for readers, making it easier for them to read through the piece once and walk away with most of the information the piece was written to communicate. A poor structure will force readers to reread the piece and prevent the flow of information from the author to the reader.
For example, AP Style (the writing style used by many journalists, named after the Associated Press) calls for an “inverted pyramid” structure to articles. The most important information is placed at the top of the article so that readers don’t have to read the entire piece to understand what it is communicating. Less important information is placed at the end of the article.
Whether or not you are writing for a major newspaper or writing a blog post for your startup, know what you want to say and how you are going to say it.
In analytical writing (for example, reports, analyses, and academic writing), it is important to have clear signposting. Signposting tells readers what you are going to say, how you are going to say it, and when you are going to say it. Its purpose is to guarantee that your readers can mentally prepare themselves and to prevent any surprises within your writing. It helps facilitate flow. For example, you can say, “My conclusion is X,” or “First, I will do Y, then I will move onto Z.”
Signposting isn’t perfect for all styles of writing. Some styles hinge on the fact that you will surprise your reader, or that you are building up anticipation towards your conclusion. Whether or not you should signpost depends on knowing your audience.
3. Kill the semicolon
Kurt Vonnegut once warned against the use of semicolons, saying “[t]hey are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” While he was speaking of semicolons within purely creative writing, his warning applies to all styles of writing. If you find the need for a semicolon, your syntax isn’t simple enough.
The lesson in killing your semicolon is actually a lesson in simplifying your writing. Long, multi-claused sentences which force the reader to go back and read the first clause by the time she reaches the last clause are confusing and only work to muddle down your message. If it can be said in shorter, more concise sentences, then say it in shorter, more concise sentences. Your readers will thank you, and so will your message.
These are just a few tips on starting down the path to improving your writing skills. If you follow the underlying messages and are aware of where you can improve your writing, you’ll be a master of this much-needed skill.