Writing skills on the job

No matter what you do for a living, chances are extremely high that you write on the job. Did you know that companies spend over $3 billion a year helping their employees learn how to write better? That’s a lot of scratch. And just because your boss hasn’t brought in a pro like me to help you improve your writing skills doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on them. Why is that?

Because writing is considered a threshold skill that often determines whether you get promoted. Employers want employees who can write well, bottom line. You may get hired with average or sub-par skills because your expertise in other areas is extraordinary, but without showing improvement, chances are you won’t be tapped to move up the ladder.

What to do? Obviously, a single blog post about this issue should not be the end of your journey as you seek to improve your on-the-job writing skills. Start by making a list of all the written documents you produce on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. An annual report is only written once a year, but you send emails every day. And if your inbox looks anything like mine, you have my sympathies.

The important thing to remember is to be clear, concise, and professional in all written communication, and that includes being a prolific proofreader BEFORE you send that document on its way. When you look at that list of writing you regularly produce, you should quickly realize that you need to allow for time to revise and proofread.

I recently asked my students how many of them proofread written projects before they turn them in for grades. Very few hands went up. Then I asked them how many proofread emails before sending them. Three quarters of the room raised their hands. I asked them what the difference was. They said with emails, someone on the other end cares what it says and how it is constructed.

As a writing professor, this is fascinating to me. We actually discussed it because I enjoy hearing students’ perspectives on such differences and the distinctions they make when writing. To me, their perception that professors don’t care about their written projects speaks volumes about how we handle writing across the university – and it doesn’t speak well. But also interesting was their distinct awareness that emails within and without the university setting matter more.

So imagine how important those emails are that YOU send every single day. If you aren’t proofreading every email, then you are missing out on an opportunity and are not giving this important and common form of communication its due.

Let’s fix that. Here are four tips to help you write stronger, clearer, and more professional emails at work:

1. Lead with a proper greeting that includes the correct use (and spelling) of the recipient’s name (Dear John, Good day Dr. Stevens, Good morning Susan) Sidebar: Note that I did not include a comma to set off the direct address in these greetings. Rules such as these are quickly being dropped in our modern world, and in emails, the non-comma form of direct address has become common. Grammar Underground has a good piece on this phenomenon. So if you just cringed at my lack of commas in the direct addresses, I would advise you to relax and adapt. 🙂

2. Be specific. People are busy, so respect their time and get right to the point of WHY you are writing. Don’t ramble, or lead in with a long explanation or background about the problem or situation. If you want to meet about something, then ask for the meeting (Good morning John! I’d like to meet next week to discuss (topic). Please let me know a good time on Tuesday or Wednesday that works for you. Thanks much!) You can verbally provide that background in the meeting. Or better yet, provide a handout with a bullet point list.

3. See #2. Ask for action. Say thank you.

4. Proofread for spelling, misused words, unclear statements, and punctuation errors. Fix those before hitting send.

If you follow these four simple tips with EVERY email you write, your written communication will improve tenfold, your recipients will no longer be annoyed with your emails, and your boss will think better of you. Try it today!

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