THE ART OF WRITING (and we’re not talking about penmanship)


Have you ever wondered why people don’t understand a proposal on which you have worked for hours – finding just the right words, exhibits and footnotes?  Have you had to take extra time to explain a letter you sent to a client because “they just didn’t get it?”  Have you had a co-worker angry at you over an e-mail which you thought was funny?  If you can answer ‘yes’ to any of these (or for some of us, to all of these), then read on – here on some tips which may help you.

Letters.  Letters include memos, which are just internal letters.  Letters should always be short, sweet and to the point.  In other words, don’t use too many words!  Use the ‘RE’ part of the letter to alert the reader as to the content.  Use keywords, not entire paragraphs.  A letter should be constructed like a short story – a really short story.  There should be a short introduction, an explanation and a summary – three paragraphs if possible.  Try to fit your entire letter on one page.  Studies have shown that if a letter is longer than one page, any information found on the second page will be ignored.  People get tired of reading.  If your explanation needs justifications and charts, use exhibits (e.g. for details, please see Exhibit A).  Do NOT make the font size smaller simply to accommodate your need to put everything on one page.  Use a readable font, such as Times New Roman or Arial and make it no smaller than 10 point.  I would recommend 12 point for most letters.

Reports.  When writing a report, first determine who is your audience.   A report which is going to a Board of Directors should be more formal than one going to your co-workers.  The next thing to consider is what is the objective of the report.  Are you trying to teach, document, sway opinion or make a proposal?  All of these types of reports are written differently and will include or exclude certain types of information.  For instance if you are documenting a procedure, the report should be very detailed and written in an outline form.  However, if you are trying to propose a new procedure, the report should only highlight the appropriate parts of the procedure, illustrate where the changes should be made and why.  Reports do have something in common with letters – they should have an introduction, an explanation and a summary.  Reports should be no longer than two pages long and all details should be attached as exhibits.

E-mails.  E-mails have become the preferred mode of communication in all offices.  Some doctors even suggest that we are getting fatter because we send an e-mail rather than getting up and walking to the cubicle next to us to discuss an issue.  E-mails have become a very informal way to document conversations and have taken the place of memos to a large degree.  However, there are some pitfalls of e-mails which should be avoided.  First – spelling does count in e-mails.  All e-mail programs have a preference which you can mark to automatically check your spelling before an e-mail is sent – use it!  Yes, you will have to train the dictionary by adding some items – but you will impress a lot more people by spelling correctly in your e-mails.  Avoid using all capital letters.  All capital letters in an e-mail, means you are yelling at the person and can imply anger.  SO DON’T DO IT!  The same can be said with excessive punctuation (lots of exclamation points, question marks, etc.)  AGAIN, DON’T DO IT!!! It changes the whole tone of the e-mail and can cause a lot of misunderstandings.  One of the main things to remember with e-mails is that they can be forwarded on to anyone – including the CEO of your company.  So, avoid the cute e-mails, jokes and stories – and be aware of your company’s standards regarding such e-mails.  Also – just because e-mails are quick does not mean you have to answer them right away.  How many times have you answered an e-mail quickly and then after you push the ‘send’ button realized that your answer wasn’t entirely right.  There is nothing wrong with taking time to answer e-mails.  If you have to, print them off and read them the next day, giving yourself time to prepare the correct answer.  In addition, when replying to an e-mail with multiple recipients – unless everyone will benefit from your reply, do not reply to everyone.  If the only person who needs your answer is the sender, only send it to that person.  Others will appreciate your kindness.

Same region of Milky Way: in visible light - M...

Image via Wikipedia

The Milky Way (image via Wikipedia)

So, there you are – all the secrets of the universe when it comes to writing.  No matter what kind of writing you are doing, just remember the ABC’s – Audience, Brief and Content.  Audience – write for your audience. What are they expecting? Do they need details?  What type of report should this be – educational, persuasive, etc?  Should it be formal or informal?  To whom is this being sent and  to whom could this possibly be forwarded?  All of these questions should be asked before you start to write anything.  Brief – keep it brief.   Introduction, explanation and summary work for just about any type of writing.  Use exhibits when possible.  Don’t overload people with information.  Keep letters to about one page and reports to two.  E-mails are traditionally short, but they can be too long also, so practice the same philosophy.  ContentSpelling always counts.  Grammar is important also – but people will overlook grammar as a personal style type of thing – spelling is not in that category.  Spell check your letters and reports.  Set your e-mail to automatically check everything before it is sent.  Watch your punctuation, bold print and underlining – use it sparingly and only to make a point.  Don’t use a lot of acronyms and industry-specific language.  Be clear, concise and accurate.  The main thing to remember is that your written word will probably be the first impression a lot of people will have of you.  Be aware of the impact of your written words on others.  Always be aware that what you write may not stop at the person you intended, it could circulate.  Make sure your information is correct and presented in a professional manner.  If you do all of these things, then people really will think that you hold all of the secrets of the universe.


One response »

  1. I feel sad that people’s attention span is so short that everything has to be short. I used to write long, handwritten letters (I know, it dates me) of 10-12 pp. on beautiful paper, and people loved to get those. They would read them over a day, then read and re-read.

    People don’t “get” letters and written correspondence any more because they’re too lazy or distracted to read and digest the content. I’m pretty sure from the level of your writing it’s NOT how you write. You’re very clear.

    Whatever happened to reading is my question.

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