A title card which reads, "11 Rules for Writing at Work."

Writing is one of the most important skills in the modern workplace.  

According to a 2018 report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 82% of companies are looking for written communication skills on an employee’s resume.  For contrast, only 67% of companies said they look for skills highlighting verbal communication — a full 15-point delta between those two skill sets.

Here’s the thing, though:  There is a right way and a wrong way to go about writing at work.  The wrong way means that your memo never makes it to your boss or your employees hit “Delete” when your email comes through.  And this is more important now than ever, especially when more upper-management decision-makers are using communication tools rather than in-person meetings to communicate.

So, in this article, we’re not going to talk about grammar and sentence structure.  We’re going to cover some practical writing tips that you can use to boost readership.

If you’re going to spend time slaving over an email or a proposal, someone might as well read it, right?

Here’s how to make that happen.

1.  Know your audience.

This is a point that I harp on more than anything else when talking with clients or training other writers.  If you want people to respond to your messaging, you have to understand who you’re talking to.

Regardless of whether you’re drafting an email, a LinkedIn message, or a business document, knowing your audience is the first step to getting someone to read it.  It’s so important that it should be at the start of your writing process.

When you sit down to write a report or fire off an email, your first question should always, always, always be, “Who am I talking to?” followed closely by, “Why do they want to hear from me?”

If you can answer those two questions correctly, you can become a better writer in under sixty seconds. 

By understanding your audience, you can tap specific sets of knowledge to personalize your email.  In the same way that you wouldn’t use an inside joke with a stranger, you also shouldn’t use acronyms or shop talk with a reader who isn’t in the know. 

Before you write anything, figure out who will be reading your email, what you want to say, and what they’ll want to know.

2.  Don’t write a novel.

Have you ever spent a ton of time writing out a detailed email only to have its contents completely ignored?

It happens to the best of us — and for good reason.  According to researchers, people don’t read.  They skim.  Large blocks of dense text require a commitment in time and energy that your reader may not be willing or able to provide.

That’s why short, concise sentences are almost always preferable to long-winded diatribes.  If you must write a long email, leaving plenty of white space can improve visibility and help readers make it to the finish line.

The best way to figure out if your email is too long is to step back from the keyboard and give it a visual once-over.  Are you staring at a wall of black and white text, or is it a paragraph or three broken up over several lines?

Look at your document and ask yourself — honestly — if you would commit to reading it without knowing what was inside.

If the answer is no, either shorten the text or find some way to break it up so that it’s more digestible, even if that means breaking up your content over multiple emails.

3.  Get straight to the point.

If you’re writing a memo or an email, don’t beat around the bush.  People are busy, and nobody wants to try and decipher your message.

After the initial salutations are out of the way, get straight to the point.  

An up-front strategy can also help you improve readability because it sets the focus for your document and broadcasts exactly what you plan to cover before the reader commits.

While there is a place for great storytelling within the marketing and sales aspects of any business, those same rules don’t always apply for internal and actionable communications.

Don’t be afraid to telegraph your talking points early and expand on those points farther down the page.

4.  Ask for ONE thing.

Whether you’re sending an email, a proposal, or an invoice, here’s the hard and fast rule when writing at work:

Ask for one thing at a time.

Don’t send an email asking your boss about overtime approvals, your PTO request five months from now, along with some follow-up details about the office picnic.  It’s too much, and your boss is far too likely to miss at least one of your questions.

Asking for one thing gives you the ability to solidify the theme of your document or email.  

Give every document you send a single purpose, and you’ll write better because you’re focused on that one ask.

Note:  There is an exception to this rule.  

If you’re talking about a single project and have multiple questions, the best approach is often to use a bulleted list to send multiple questions that the reader can answer in quick succession.

This is a good workaround if you have a complex project and most of your answers will come from one subject matter expert or internal source.

5. Avoiding marking your email “urgent.”

The problem with marking your email as urgent is that everyone marks their email this way.  When everything is urgent, nothing is urgent.

Send your email early, and — if it’s really that important — call, text, or meet your reader face to face and tell them that it’s critical that you get a response.

Seriously, unless your organization regularly fires users who mark every email as urgent, this little tool is more trouble than it’s worth.

6.  Learn traditional/accepted formats.

This one is easy.

Even good writers can improve readability by using accepted formats when writing at work.  That could be the standard email format or the right way to invoice, based on company standards.

Many of these formats may exist as created templates within your business documentation.  You can gain better business writing skills by simply following these templates and speaking to your reader through forms that they can recognize.

Everyone knows what an invoice looks like.  It wouldn’t make sense for you to format an itemized invoice in the same way you’d format a contract.  By that same token, deliver information using formats that people expect and understand so that they can grasp the details more quickly.

7.  Use plain English.

Especially when it comes to external communication, using plain and simple English is far better than using words that your reader can’t understand.

While writing at work, you’re likely to have an internal and an external audience. The internal audience (your coworkers) are “in the know.”  They understand your job and the way that the business operates.  If you start using acronyms or describing internal processes, they’d understand without a step-by-step walkthrough.

On the other hand, if you used that same lesson with your customers, clients, and contracts (readers outside your organization), they won’t have any idea what you’re talking about.

Be sure to use simple English, without acronyms or abbreviations, and explain internal processes step-by-step for external readers.

8.  Take a step back before you send something.

If you have time before sending a document, save your draft, and walk away.  Come back to it after a few hours have passed, or look it over the next day before sending it out.

While this won’t be practical if you’re operating on a deadline, it’s a good habit to get into when you need to send important documentation.

Giving your mind a chance to focus on other things before returning to the document can help you clarify your ideas.  It can also help you ensure that the ideas you want to communicate are well-written and easy to understand from the very first sentence.

9.  Create a template when possible.

This is one of the best ways to improve your writing at work because it saves time and removes the potential for errors in your text.

If you’ve written something that you’re likely to write again, just save the final product from all of your hard work and transform it into a template.

In business writing, it’s common for companies to use the same types of documents over and over again.  Here are just a few:

  • Invoices
  • Business proposals
  • Onboarding letters
  • Thank you emails
  • Sales emails
  • Contracts

And the list goes on.  By creating templates that you can use again, you create a systematic method to eliminate errors.  Once you know the first round of text is clean, you can use it indefinitely (with minor changes).  This saves time and brainpower for other tasks.

10.  Assume that everyone can read your message.

While you can probably assume some level of privacy when it comes to business communications, you can never be sure.  That’s why you should always assume that someone else inside the organization can see and read exactly what you wrote.

When using company equipment, never expect privacy.

There isn’t always malicious intent behind this.  Keyloggers and software on company computers, iPhones, and Android devices make it easy for supervisors to see your activity, your search history, and any correspondence you send.

While this isn’t true for every single business, you should always operate under the assumption that what you see and write on a computer you don’t control can be seen.

Beyond that, people love to gossip.  Writing something deeply personal and sharing it could result in unintended eyes finding their way to your text.

11.  Use tools to find proofing and spelling errors.

Especially if you’re writing something important, use a tool like Grammarly or ProWritingAid in order to find proofing and spelling errors in your copy.  You can also use tried and true techniques to self-edit your work.

Most writing apps understand business communications and business English.  They can help you correct spelling errors, missing punctuation, and some not-so-obvious problems like homophones or inverted text.

But it’s important to note that these tools aren’t a cure-all.  When possible, it’s always good to give yourself some space before sending documents that you’ve written at work.  

If you can work that into your writing process and combine that with grammar tools, you’ll make everything from email writing to contract negotiation much easier.

12. Don’t forget the follow-up.

This one is easy to forget because it doesn’t always happen on the same day: Don’t forget to follow up on a document you sent a few days ago.

With the exception of critical documentation, it might take some time for colleagues or customers to see and reply to your email.  But that doesn’t mean that you should let it fall through the cracks.  

Sometimes, a quick follow-up after a day or two is enough to get people back on track.  Just use a short and sweet format to nudge someone in the right direction.

For critical documents, it might be prudent to follow up within an hour or two.  You’ll have to make that decision based on urgency.

Business Writing vs. Creative Writing

Now that we’ve covered the rules, it’s worth taking a second to point out that even if you’re a good writer, it’s easy to apply your writing skills in the wrong way while writing at work.

Many of my clients freeze up when it comes to writing because they feel like their text needs to be creative and engaging.  At some level, that’s true.  Nobody wants to read an ultra-dense, ultra-boring email.

However, there’s a major difference between business writing and creative writing, especially for the layperson who isn’t trying to make a career out of it.

That difference is simple:

The purpose of creative writing, especially where fiction is concerned, is to tell a compelling story.  The purpose of business writing is to communicate information in a way that is both straightforward and easy to understand.

Don’t take that the wrong way:  When writing at work, there is still room for creativity — but that’s not the goal.  When the average worker can receive over 100 emails per day, it’s just not feasible.

The goal is to convey information and intent in a written format.  How well you do that can ultimately have a major impact on your success where written language is concerned.

If you need professional help, don’t hesitate to get in touch!  Otherwise, remember the rules when you sit down to reply to your next incoming email.

Marc "Scott" Summers | © 2020