My friend John has a graceful, sophisticated writing style in which paragraph follows elegant paragraph. John wants to change his style so that it takes him less time to communicate in letters, emails, and other pieces. He also wants his writing to be faster to read.
To help John (and you) make a writing style change, I offer these tips:
1. If your style is sophisticated like John's:
Your rich, deep vocabulary and compound-complex sentences can challenge fast-moving readers of email and web content. Try these tactics:
- Shorten your words. For each long word, find a shorter, simpler version. Use a thesaurus to replace comprehensible with clear, prerogative with choice, and injudiciously with carelessly.
- Shorten your sentences. Make sure no sentence is longer than about 35 words, and strive for an average sentence length of 20 words or less. Avoid semicolons, the signposts of complex sentence structures.
- Use short chunks of text, including bullet points, rather than relying on lengthy, well-developed paragraphs.
2. If your style is careful and formal:
You will need to adapt your style for informal pieces. For example, newsletter articles, blog posts, and most presentations require a style that connects more personally with the audience. Try these tips:
- Shorten your sentences. Avoid long, flowing, complex sentence structures.
- Use you to address the reader rather than writing “the reader,” “one,” or “a shareholder.”
- Use first names rather than last names.
- Use exclamation points occasionally.
- Break the traditional rules. For instance, write sentences that end with prepositions (“This is the information you have been looking for”), begin with conjunctions (“But the results surprised us”), and contain contractions (“We’re here to help”).
- Use phrases to replace crisp words. For example, instead of the word occasionally, use “from time to time” or “now and then.” Such phrases are less concise but feel more casual.
3. If your style is informal:
When you need to write formally—for example, in site visit reports and proposals—avoid the suggestions in Number 2 above. These steps will help you be formal:
- Use complete sentences. Avoid sentence fragments such as “Good to know” or “No surprise.”
- Use punctuation properly—avoid sprinkling in dashes when you are not sure how to punctuate—as in this incorrect sentence.
- End your sentences with periods rather than letting them trail off with ellipses, which are illustrated here . . .
- Avoid smiley faces, unnecessary graphics, and background wallpaper in email.
- Avoid quotations after your signature in email.
4. If your style is friendly:
Recognize that friendly is not always the right tone. For example, when you are denying a claim, writing to eminent scholars, or producing executive meeting notes, you need a more formal tone. Consider the suggestions in No. 3 above, along with these:
- Use last names rather than first names.
- Avoid slang and contractions. Rather than “We’re psyched to meet you!” write “We are looking forward to meeting you.”
- Avoid writing about your kids’ recitals, your exciting weekend, and other personal news.
- Avoid mentioning anything personal about your reader. For example, avoid “Hope you had a good weekend” and “I heard you were sick. Hopefully you are feeling better.”
5. If your style is concise:
Conciseness is a virtue in nearly all business writing. But very concise writing can seem abrupt. When you need to “bulk up” your writing so it feels warmer, follow these tips:
- Use your reader’s name.
- Use your own first name—don’t let your messages go unsigned in email.
- Use complete sentences rather than “Fine” or “Thanks.”
- Include words and phrases that communicate warmth: happy to, pleased, delighted, etc.
- Read your message aloud and listen for places to elaborate.
- Avoid the words immediately and now, which often sound pushy.
6. If your style is wordy:
A flowing conversational style can succeed in fiction and other creative forms of writing. But it can fail in business writing, which usually requires efficient, concise communication. When you need to get your point across concisely, try these tips:
- Supply short explanations rather than long ones. Think of them as snacks rather than full meals. Add the note “Let me know if you need more.”
- Tell yourself that your reader has 100 other pieces to read, and then write accordingly.
- After you write a message, review the beginning to see whether it includes unnecessary background information or “throat-clearing.” Delete anything that precedes the real message.
- Take the 10 percent challenge. Whenever you write a piece, force yourself to cut it by at least 10 percent.
7. If your style is analytical:
Good business is built on solid analysis. But most business documents must focus on action and implementation. To shift your writing from analysis to application, take these steps:
- Use the heading “Action Required” in your document to focus yourself and the reader on action rather than analysis.
- Ask yourself, “What is the most important part of this message? What do I want the reader to do?” When you know the answer to those questions, be sure the right information stands out for the reader.
- Insert an executive summary—not “background”—at the beginning of a long document. Share your conclusions, in brief, in the summary.
- Use links and attachments for additional information rather than including extra content that may bog down your reader.
- If you are writing about a product, recognize that your reader will not need to build it—just use it or sell it.
- Pick up the phone and call. A conversation can get much faster results than a carefully constructed memo, which may not even be read.
8. If your style is dry:
If you excel at facts and figures, you may at times need to enrich your style to be more compelling and persuasive. Try the techniques mentioned in Numbers 1, 2, and 7 above, and apply these tips:
- Before you write, think about the most exciting part of what you have to convey. Will it excite your reader? If so, use that part as a recurring theme. For example, if a 10 percent increase in employee retention is most exciting, write “Here is how we achieved that 10 percent” and later “Here is how we will increase retention beyond 10 percent.”
- Use you, I, and we. Using pronouns will make your writing more down to earth and engaging.
- Bring data to life with anecdotes and analogies.
- Replace columns of data with a table or chart that communicates quickly.
- Add visual interest to an article or report. Use a text box to display an interesting quote, or use color for key headings.
If you feel resistant to changing your style, compare a style change to a change in clothing. The clothes you wear grocery shopping would not be appropriate at a fancy wedding. Similarly, the style you use in an email to a friend won’t work well in your project status report to senior executives. And what is in vogue today may seem odd tomorrow.
What have you done to change your writing style or to help others change theirs?
A version of this article appeared in Clarity, Conciseness, Zing, and More: 262 Ways to Take Business Writing Beyond the Basics.