This is a simple primer on written communications. Numerous books are available on writing for business and writing in general. I'll offer a piece of advice here: Writing for business is really not that different from any good writing.
When it comes to a manual for effective writing, there is only one I need to recommend. Elements of Style by Strunk and White is considered the standard in the field. It covers basic writing rules and usage that, if adhered to, produce excellent results. Although many other books exist, I'll begin and end my recommendation here.
With that said, the sections that follow provide some guidelines to effective written communications.
Some general guidelines for all forms of written communication are as follows:
- Be brief— It's not about volume. The goal is well-understood and relevant content.
- Make your point first, and then back it up— Those who write infrequently often begin by filling in details in an attempt to take the reader through their thought process. Don't! Instead, make the point and then fill in any necessary information. You will find in many cases that the point itself is sufficient.
- Watch punctuation— A question is a question. Commas separate thoughts. It simply looks more professional and more intelligent to punctuate your work properly.
- Break up your ideas— Use paragraphs to separate ideas. In the freeform world of e-mail, this rule is often abused. Long, unbroken paragraphs are difficult to read. In addition, use spacing between ideas to create a logical break for the reader.
Few pieces of written correspondence have the impact of a well-written business letter.
Properly address your letter. If you are unsure of the addressee, call the company or call the person who is receiving the correspondence.
Use the person's name in the letter. This demonstrates your ongoing recognition of that person.
Create a logical flow in your letter. Use the tips for structure that are described in the section "The Well-Crafted Page" later in this chapter. This can help you organize your letter's ideas.
Keep your intended recipient in mind as you write. Have a clear understanding of what this person is most interested in. Don't include tangential information that dilutes the primary message.
Make a clear call to action or request. You are writing the letter to give information, request something, or spur some type of response. Make sure you let the person know what you expect as a result of your letter. Don't be vague.
I have always found it surprising that individuals who normally write well-conceived and organized communications (letters or memos) throw all that out when it comes to e-mail.
This disregard takes the form of sloppy punctuation, lack of organization, a general disregard for capitalization, and other problems. For some reason, many believe that e-mail communications do not have to adhere to the normal rules that guide any of their other correspondence.
If that has been your approach, change it. With few exceptions, e-mail should follow most of the same guidelines that are used in other written correspondence. Just because it starts in electronic format does not mean it stays there.
Also, it is likely that your e-mail will be passed along to someone else—perhaps someone you do not know. Those scattered thoughts and run-on sentences might be some other individual's only exposure to you. Believe me, poor grammar in an e-mail can have an impact.
If your e-mail is a short clip of information, use the same guidelines as you would when creating a memo. If it is a longer correspondence, it should read—and be written—like a letter.
I understand that there are exceptions. A quick yes/no type of clipped response can be appropriate. However, communications of any substance should not take on the roguish and unstructured format that is often present in e-mail correspondence.
The Well-Crafted Paragraph
If you have never been much of a writer, I am going to give you a basic formula for a well-crafted paragraph. Understand that I deviate from this formula often. It is a format to provide a guideline to help organize your writing. After you have learned this and practiced it well, you can depart from this form, too.
Your standard paragraphs should have four to seven sentences. The introductory sentence introduces the main idea or topic. Two to five sentences form the body and should explain the idea introduced in sentence one. The final sentence concludes your thought by reiterating the original topic and the ideas presented in the body.
Career building is a long-term activity. It requires formulating a plan that involves coordinating skills and desires. After you've formed the plan, you can modify it based on your circumstances. However, a big picture mindset is required to ensure that changes in the plan are not based on reactions or compulsive behavior. Keeping such a perspective greatly enhances career development and opportunities.
I'll admit it: The paragraph isn't great. But it does have a natural starting and ending point. The last sentence effectively summarizes the information presented. You would do well to follow this structure and pattern.
But what about the rest of your document? You now have a formula for writing a paragraph, but maybe you still can't put together a document.
The Well-Crafted Page
Fortunately, the formula for writing an effective paragraph can be used quite nicely to write a longer piece, too. In fact, the formula works well to organize thoughts in general.
When writing a longer piece, such as a memo, use the following formula:
- Paragraph one— Introduces the main idea or ideas to be conveyed in the memo.
- Paragraphs two through four— Provide content for the ideas to be conveyed. Each paragraph, of course, still follows the simple guideline outlined earlier.
- Conclusion paragraph— Summarizes the ideas presented and wraps up the document by issuing a decision or call to action on the ideas presented.
I am not advocating that all business correspondence should be 25 sentences long (5 paragraphs x 5 sentences each). The formula simply provides guidelines for those who are unfamiliar or unpracticed in writing.
Your writing will improve with use. And as it does, you will feel comfortable enough to move away from the formulas presented here. However, I still find myself following these same guidelines when words or ideas are hard to come by. They are highly effective.