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A Cure for Writing Pains

At the end of business writing classes, I usually ask participants whether they got what they came for. They typically talk about the value of the writing tools, strategies, practice, and other class content and how they are going to apply their learning back on the job.

But last week a participant surprised me. When I asked whether Ken had gotten what he came for–which was to find ways to communicate highly technical information to nontechnical readers–he responded flatly, “No, I didn’t.”

Yikes! My biggest fear stared me in the face: Someone didn’t get value from the class–and he was saying it out loud. I held my breath, nodding for him to go on. Other participants waited for what might come next. Ken said something like this:

“I didn’t get what I came for. I came looking for ways to get across my technical information to my readers. But when I really thought about my readers and what they needed in my reports, I realized they didn’t even need the technical information. I was trying to do something that didn’t need to be done.”

Ken had not gotten what he had hoped for–he had gotten something more.

I share Ken’s insight because it reminds me of a basic principle of design, of engineering–and even of writing. If an aspect of the design is causing a problem, can it be eliminated? When Ken put himself in his readers’ place, he realized that it could. He could eliminate the highy technical information–his readers didn’t need it.

If you are struggling with an aspect of writing, think about your message from your readers’ point of view. What do your readers need? What are their questions?

Is business writing a pain? Try this amazing cure: Give your readers what they need. You may feel a whole lot better.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.