Written communication is becoming more important every day because of global integration. Nowadays, it is rare to see all the members of a project team in one geographic location or working the same hours. There is outsourcing within the United States as well as outsourcing to various parts of the world, like India, China and other countries. Even with a local team, people now do a lot of work from home.
Although face-to-face communication cannot be replaced, increasingly more information is transmitted through email and documents than ever before. Even when there are direct meetings, quality processes dictate that information be documented properly for long-term understanding and knowledge transfer to future team members.
This requires us to improve our professional writing skills. Unfortunately, during most of our schooling (except probably business school), we are never taught to communicate well to others. Most of our writing is about what we understood about the subject. It is meant to be factual or meet the course requirements, but never evaluated on what other people understood.
So how can we improve upon our writing? I don’t claim to be an expert in writing, but here are some of the learning strategies and tips I use to improve my writing:
- Write more: You can always improve with practice. When you write an email, spend time writing a long email. When you chat with people and you have time, type long sentences instead of funny acronyms and abbreviations. If you can, start a diary or a blog and try to write regularly. The more you write, the easier it becomes. Also, if you write a public blog, you will be under pressure to write and edit better than you would normally.
- Read more: Read both fiction and non-fiction. Reading fiction helps you understand the language that people use in daily life – idioms, slang, colloquialisms, nuances, etc. Business writing is more formal, of course, but it is better to use straight, simple talk than roundabout jargon. Reading non-fiction helps you understand industry terminology and practices and also use good examples in your writing.
- Ask for feedback: Show your writing to people and ask them for their feedback. Is it readable? Is it meaningful? What should be improved? Many friends have offered me valuable suggestions on my writing on this blog – some in the comments and others privately and it has made me change my writing.
- Accept unsolicited feedback: Sometimes, people will point out flaws in your writing without your asking. My secondary school English teacher, the Head of the Physics Department, and the Director of the School of Computer Science would mark my writing mistakes (spelling, grammar, wording, etc.) It was tough to hear the criticism, but it was worth it.
- Take a test: Preparing for the GMAT (Graduation Management Admission Test) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) can significantly improve your writing skills. It makes you more disciplined about the rules of English grammar. And the umpteen practice tests helps you understand the weak points.
- Correct bad writing: Emphasize good written English with your team members. This makes you careful of making mistakes yourself. Beware, though. Some people can get upset or defensive, so do this only to subordinates privately and only when the flawed communication affects you. You can get pretty unpopular by telling people to create readable, short sentences or using “your” instead of “you’re”.
- Train yourself: Read books on how to write better. A good writing style guide is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk & White. Do research on the Internet for writing styles. Many web sites and blogs also provide information on writing better.
Regardless of your current writing skill, there is always scope for improvement. You can always learn new techniques and methods for communicating to people. For example, a couple of things I can improve upon: Keeping my writing shorter and illustrating it better with graphics and good layout. I suppose each of you would also find things you can enhance.