Skip to content

Don’t Work so Hard on Your Writing

As a careful writer and professional, I have sometimes spent too much time fussing with a piece of writing when I didn’t need to. Recently I spent several hours on a proposal, when a brief conversation would have told me the client wasn’t serious about moving forward.

In classes, I often witness employees and managers working too hard on a document or an email, when there is an easier way to handle the communication.

Do you work too hard on your writing? Do you find yourself struggling over details, only to find they weren’t worth your time? Consider these don’ts, which may help you save time and effort:

  1. Don’t spend time and energy worrying about the content of a sensitive message–a message, for example, to say no, to give constructive feedback, or to respond to an internal complaint. Instead of writing, call the individual or meet in person to talk through the issue. Then write–or better yet, have the other person write–a summary of the conversation. Having dealt with the emotional aspect of the communication, you will probably find the follow-up message easy.
  2. Don’t go into great detail in response to an individual’s written question. Instead, consider that the question may be much simpler than you imagine. A detailed response that covers every aspect of a question can waste your time and the other person’s. Why not provide a thoughtful but brief response? You can end it this way: “If you need more details, please let me know. I’ll be happy to provide them.”Or make a phone call before responding to be sure you understand how much information the other person wants. A quick call may meet everybody’s needs.
  3. Don’t cover every possible aspect of a complex topic in an email. For example, if you are arranging a visit to your job site, cover the basics such as place, date and time, contact to meet, required safety gear, etc. But don’t cover unlikely issues such as what to do if there is bad weather, the highway is under construction, the company contact is out sick, etc. You can manage those things if they happen, but to include them from the outset is too much work for you–and for your reader.
  4. Don’t automatically write responses to recommendations, proposals, etc., which can take a lot of careful thought, time, and energy. Instead, meet in person or by phone with the writers to discuss your feedback. Then write a summary of the discussion, or ask the other person to write it.
  5. Don’t stress over writing a message to all employees when only one or two individuals need to receive it. For example, if two team members leave their desks a mess, causing a concern about bug infestations, don’t spend an hour composing a careful memo for the entire team. Take the individuals aside and address your concern directly and quickly.
  6. Don’t make a document bigger than it should be. For instance, don’t think that a cover letter will get you a job, therefore putting every positive aspect of your life in it. A cover letter should get you a screening interview–not a job-so only include enough enticing information to achieve that smaller goal. Don’t make a mountain out of a small bump in the road.
  7. Don’t write everything that was said at a meeting in your meeting notes. That’s too much work, and few people will read lengthy minutes. Instead, include only topics, decisions, action items, and key points. If you are not sure whether a point is worth including, ask attendees if appropriate. To find out how to make note taking easier, take our online class Meeting Notes Made Easy.

Have you spent too much time and anxiety writing? Which don’ts have you learned? Please share your lessons.

Posted by Avatar photo
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.

8 comments on “Don’t Work so Hard on Your Writing”

  • Wow, I am having awful flashbacks to my corporate days of writing audit reports for a consulting firm. My boss was one who agonized over every word and phrase. On many occasions, we would be in the office until 10:00 or 10:30 p.m., the evening before we delivered the report to the client.

    On one of those occasions, my boss came into my office around 10:15 p.m. and said, “You know I was thinking.” I raised my hand, palm up, and replied, “And you need to stop that. If we cannot deliver this report in its current state, we need to find another job.”

    Hmm, perhaps that’s why my branding for my freelance business centers around, “Keep it simple.” 😉 I love how many of your examples include the suggestion of speaking to the appropriate person(s). For all our technology, I often find using our voice instead of our fingers is the better form of communication. 🙂

    So, ask yourself, does it need to be sent in writing? Or would a conversation be a better alternative?

  • Cathy, I am glad you shared your story of working at that consulting firm. People may recognize themselves and know they need to change. We should never have to be tweaking our language at 10 p.m.

    Thanks for your excellent questions that we should ask ourselves before we write. I can think of situations when a conversation would have saved me a lot of writing time.


  • I feel more confident in writing than in speaking (be it English, Italian or any other language). Especially if words need to be kept for future reference. My colleagues don’t like writing instead (they’re not good at it), but this has often caused trouble because of lack of written proof. So it’s really important to be able to undestand when to use letters and when voice!

  • Hi Lisa,

    Nice to hear from you! Thanks for sharing that link. After reading the blog post, I do not know what “High-Speed Voice Technology” is. Is Rich Sheridan saying they are talking through VOIP connections? He refers to people “at each computer where two people are paired together working on the same task at the same time.” How do you interpret that?

    I need more details. It doesn’t make sense to me that a company would not use email to communicate. If I had to talk to every person who emailed me now–even just my closest contacts–I would never get anything done.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *