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0 Polishing Your Writing Style

Effective communication is a major topic in mentoring. Success at everything we do- giving and receiving feedback, wielding political savvy, networking, seeking career advancement- comes down to our ability to thoughtfully say what we mean. Over the past year, many of us have polished our online presence and dug deep into our toolboxes to work productively in a virtual world. In this month’s newsletter we are going step back from technology and address good-old fashioned writing fundamentals.

Don’t worry the rules have relaxed

Admittedly, texting and social media posting have forever altered the writing craft. Some of the hard-nosed grammatical rules we learned in school have been lifted, for example: it’s okay to start a new sentence with a conjunction (“But let me know if you can’t access the server.”) if it adds gracefulness to your message. You can end a sentence on a preposition (“Which session were you in?”) if it makes the sentence clearer. Even capitalization can be optional depending on the medium. The north star for correspondence in the modern world is clarity. In other words, your emails need not sound Shakespearean for the sake of proper grammar.

Please do not misunderstand relaxing the rules for rushing your process. Be a careful writer and an even more careful editor of your own work. The final chapter of Strunk and White’s prized writing guide, The Elements of Style, urges: “Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally, your product is without flaw.”

Be concise: fewer words make a bigger impact

Say what you mean and say it quickly. Be polite and conversational but try not to couch your point in too many niceties because the meaning could be lost. Consider these two passages:

Example A: “I hope you are well! Let me start by saying how grateful I am for the opportunity to work on this project. I have really enjoyed getting to know everyone and the very challenging work and hope to continue working with this team for a long time. I did want to let you know that I’ve actually had some trouble accessing the platform. Do you have any idea who I should contact for help with this? Thank you again. I really hope to see you soon!”

Example B: “Hi- Who should I contact for password help? Thanks! Enjoying the experience and the work!”

The second example quickly outlines the sender’s needs. Their straightforward phrasing also better expresses their genuine appreciation because it’s easier to see what they’re saying. Taking too long to get to the point is confusing and frankly, you lose the reader’s attention after a while. Be genuine but also direct and succinct.

Here are a few tried and true tips for eliminating wordiness:

1. Qualifying words such as “really”, “very,” and “definitely” are distracting. If a situation needs more emphasis, then find a better word. If you are “really happy,” maybe you are “thrilled.” If you are “very concerned,” perhaps you are “worried.”

2. It takes more words to be vague. Asking for the item “somewhat quickly” sounds clunky and offers no answers. If you need your colleague to step on it, advise them to expedite or fast-track. Better yet, tell them you need it by Friday at noon.

3. Lean on key nouns and action verbs to cut down on unnecessary words. Notice how trimming Example A made the purpose of Sue’s spreadsheet much clearer.

Example A: “Sue made a spreadsheet in an attempt to keep us organized.”

Example B: “Sue’s spreadsheet will keep us organized.”

4. Keep prepositions under control. Prepositions are those little words that show the relationship between a noun or pronoun and some other word or element in the rest of the sentence. These words (with, into, up, of, for, about, because of, during, concerning…) should be attached to an object. While it is important to say things precisely, too many prepositions can cause a reader’s eyes to glaze. See how eliminating at least six unnecessary prepositions transformed Example A from a weighty overbearing sentence to a powerful point (Example B):

Example A: “An understanding of what the organizational mission is about will be necessary for any employee working with the team who wishes to move up in this division.”

Example B: “Team members looking for advancement will need to understand the mission.”

Avoid the passive voice

Passive writing, though hard to identify, can quickly weaken your message. The sentence subject should be the person or thing taking action rather than an action happening to the subject. One trick is to reduce the distance between the subject and the verb:

Example A: “The brief was filed by Mark on Tuesday.”

Example B: “Mark filed the brief on Tuesday.”

In example B, Mark is one word closer to the brief. You won’t always be able to avoid passive phrasing, but overdoing it makes for dull reading. Check your writing to make sure most of your sentences are active.

Cut diminishing words from your vocabulary

There are certain words and phrases we should limit because they dilute our meaning and diminish the importance of our needs:

  • Just
  • Hopefully
  • Actually
  • Kind of

Consider how those words can come across as nervous and undeserving, “I just wanted to check in.” No way. You needed to check in. Not just. “I am checking in because the staff meeting is tomorrow.” Or even, “Hopefully you saw my note.” If they have not responded to you, stronger language will urge them to prioritize: “Did you see my note?” Similarly, you aren’t “actually writing because” you are “writing because.”

Also cut sentence openers such as “I feel…”, “I think…”, and “I believe…” Be convincing with your words and put your salient points out in front. Not “I feel we are on target for our goal,” but instead “we are on target for our goal.”