Can bad writing kill your career? Maybe not. But given that most jobs require good communication skills, it can keep it in the Intensive Care Unit.
Not long ago, the CEO of popular iFixit website set off a blistering 4,000-comment debate on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network by saying in a post that he wouldn’t hire people who used bad grammar. And he was just dealing with issues like confusing “its” and “it’s,” not with all the other writing problems — such as a lack of clarity or coherence – which can consign your resume or pitch letter to the dead-on-arrival file. Here’s the author’s followup.
Experts on business communication often try to help by urging you to observe the 5 C’s: Keep your writing clear, complete, correct, concise and courteous (though some substitute a word such as consistent or comprehensive for one of those). This is a good idea. But it offers little help to those of us who have a larger (and perhaps more common) problem: We can’t figure out what we want to say or how to say it.
If you’re one of those writers, try these tips:
First decide what you want to say. Then decide on the order in which to say it. Many of us learned in school to do outlines that listed point by point what we wanted to say, in the order we wanted to say it, before we started writing. That may have made sense in the pre-computer age. Back then, re-ordering your work at a late stage involved laborious cutting and pasting. Now that you can move blocks of text with a few clicks, it’s often more effective to write down the points you want to make in random order, or as they occur to you and then, if needed, go back and number them. Otherwise, you’re trying to do two things at once: to figure out what you want to say and the order in which to say it, which makes the job harder.
“Write first, edit later.” Douglas Cazort offers this tip in his book, Under the Grammar Hammer, and he means: Write your first draft fast and without stopping to edit yourself. Other experts go further: They say you shouldn’t look at your notes, either, during the first draft. The reason? It’s too easy to lose sight of the big picture — what you want to say — if you’re constantly stopping to check your grammar, spelling, or facts. As Cazort notes, the detours can be costly, “especially if you forget your next idea while you’re hunting for the right way to spell a word.”
Read your work aloud. The best tone for most everyday business or online writing is friendly and conversational but professional. An easy way to achieve it is to read aloud what you’ve written and cut anything you wouldn’t say face-to-face. Would you say: “I am in receipt of your letter”? If not, change it to “I got” or “I received.”
For more tips on how to write for business and professional success, read “Good Writing Can Help You Succeed” on the Time website.