It's easy to fall into bad writing habits at work. Sometimes it's because we are racing. Sometimes it's because we have read enough swollen sentences, obscure acronyms, and endless messages to lower our standards. And sometimes we write on autopilot.
Let's find out if your writing passes a test. Before you begin, choose a recent email, report, announcement, letter, or another document you have written. A good example is one that runs from one to two screens or up to two pages. That piece of writing will be your test document.
Rate yourself on these test questions.
Answer each question below for the piece of writing you have chosen. Add (or subtract) points for each item.
1. Will the reader know what the communication is about from the subject line or title?
10 points for a clear, specific, up-to-date subject line or title
5 points for a somewhat specific up-to-date subject line or title
0 for no subject or title, or a vague or out-of-date one
2. Does the writing get to the point quickly?
10 points for getting to the point in the title or first two sentences
5 points for getting to the point in the first paragraph
2 points for getting to the point somewhere in the communication
0 for never getting to the point
3. Does the piece of writing focus on just one purpose? Multipurpose writing distracts readers and reduces results. Bad example: giving feedback, making a request, and providing an update in one communication.
10 points if the writing focuses on one purpose
2 points if it focuses on two purposes
0 if the writing has more than two purposes
4. Does the message ask the reader for action clearly with words such as "Please respond by October 20"?
10 points for asking for action clearly and providing a deadline
7 points for asking for action clearly without a deadline
5 points for implying the need for action, with or without a deadline
0 for not asking for action even though action is desirable
Scoring note: If you did not ask for action but you believe no action is required, score 6 points. A reader action is usually appropriate, for example, "Please review," "Please let me know," or "I look forward to hearing from you."
5. Did you include your full name and contact information (or someone else's name and information if appropriate)?
10 points for including a full name and a contact method such as a phone number
5 points for including just a first name and a contact method
2 points for including just a first name or a contact method
0 for including neither a name nor a contact method
Scoring note: If the scoring seems unfair, adjust it to suit your situation. However, know that email and other communications should include contact information even if the primary reader knows you well. The piece may be forwarded to others who need the information to follow up with you.
6. Does the message include short- and medium-length, uncomplicated sentences?
10 points if no sentence is longer than 30 words
8 points if no sentence is longer than 35 words
5 points if only one sentence is longer than 35 words
0 if more than one sentence is longer than 35 words
To determine sentence length in MS Word, highlight any sentence that looks long. Its number of words will appear in the lower left of your screen. In Outlook, highlight the sentence; then click Review and Word Count.
7. Does each sentence have only one idea? These two sentences each have more than one idea:
"Thanks for your help, [new idea:] and I'll see you in Chicago at the premiere."
"The navigation panel on the left side of the screen is the same for all contractors [new idea:] and helps them navigate through the site to find what they need quickly."
10 points if every sentence has only one idea
7 points if only one sentence has more than one idea
5 points if only two sentences have more than one idea
0 if three or more sentences have more than one idea
8. Does the piece include positive language, even if the message is neutral or negative? Examples of words and phrases that are generally positive: pleased, happy, benefit, value, opportunity, savings, increase, efficiency, enjoy, appreciate, look forward to.
10 points for three or more positive words or phrases
7 points for two positive words or phrases
5 points for one positive word or phrase
0 for no positive words and phrases
Scoring note: If your writing sample is a procedure that includes no positive language, give yourself 5 points. Even procedures can include positive language in their title or purpose.
9. Is the message formatted in short chunks of text? Good formatting has short chunks of text with white space between them.
10 points for a document with no paragraph longer than seven lines
8 points for only one paragraph longer than seven lines
3 points for only two paragraphs longer than seven lines
0 for more than two paragraphs longer than seven lines
Scoring note: Give yourself 2 points extra if your message has headings or bullet points; make that 3 points if it has both. Subtract 5 points for each paragraph longer than ten lines.
10. Is the message free of abbreviations, acronyms, and terms its readers may not recognize? Don't assume–read through your writing to be certain. If appropriate, imagine that your reader is a new employee or customer.
10 points for no abbreviations or terms readers may not know
5 points for only one abbreviation or term readers may not know
0 for more than one item readers may not know
Total your points for all the items. Use this rating scale:
90-103 points – Your writing sample appears to be outstanding! Consider leading courses in business writing.
70-89 points – You passed! Your sample needs just a few changes to be excellent.
50-69 points — Your sample suggests that a thorough tune-up could help you write better.
0-49 points — So glad you're here! Working on your writing will be a terrific investment in your success.
To improve your business writing, enroll in the free trial of my online self-study course Business Writing Tune-Up. You can test-drive the course to find out how it meets your needs.
Do you disagree with any items on the test? What would you change or add?
If you took the test, how did you do?