Question: How can managers improve professional writing skills

We are looking for people who can comment for an article about improving professional/business writing skills. This article is aimed at middle-manager types who are looking for tips to improve their writing.

What are common mistakes? What are some concrete ways they can improve?

3 Expert Insights

Below are TIPS ON BUSINESS WRITING I use with those I work with. These tips are from a variety of sources accumulated over a lifetime and work well to produce business writing that is easy to read and hard to misunderstand. Let me know if you'd like to discuss to any extent. They are available as a post at this link:

- Use the present tense.

- Avoid words that end in: ing and in ly (e.g., really) or even in y (e.g., very).

- Avoid words that have a z in them (e.g., utilize).

- Do not use contractions.

- Make points in the positive (i.e., don’t be negative).

- Avoid words that hedge or evade such as “it is my understanding” or “possibly,” or “perhaps,” or “could.”

- Be assertive. I.e., Say, “I need your reaction to the new product recommendations” instead of saying, “I want to meet with you to come up with a recommendation for the new product.”

- Use simple, direct sentence structure (subject – object – verb).

- Avoid personal pronouns (i.e., he, she).

- Refer to the reader and to others more than to yourself (calculate the I-to-You ratio by counting and comparing such references)

- Keep lists to no more than 7 plus or minus 2 (think of a 7-digit phone number as the standard).

- Bullets should be about 7 words or less long.

- Paragraphs should be no more than 5 lines long…because most readers only read the beginning and end of things (papers, paragraphs, sentences, etc) and not the meat in the middle.

- Spend the most time on the first paragraph and then the last and then the beginning and end of every other paragraph, first with the second and then the second to last, iterating top and bottom (3rd, 4th, etc.) until you meet in the middle.

- Be careful about using the word “this” because most of the time it refers to something clear to the writer but not to the reader…consider replacing it with specifically to what you mean to refer.

- Use flush left and ragged right margins in your writing layout.

- Eliminate jargon and buzzwords.

Managers improving business writing skills
Business writing can have multiple objectives, such as instructing, communicating, or motivating.  In each case, the writing must capture the reader, be clear and concise, convey the message, and possibly summarize the content.

Business writing should follow these rules:
• The first paragraph is the most important, the last paragraph is second most important
• The first sentence of the paragraph should indicate the information in that paragraph (therefore, an individual reading only the first sentence of each paragraph will gain a general understanding of the content)
• When writing an instructional document, be sure it is understandable for the least intelligent individual in the target audience
• When writing a communication document, establish an easily understood and referenceable structure
• When writing a motivational document, remember that the content most remembered is contained in the first and last paragraphs
Use of bullet points, as well as underlined and bold phrases, is acceptable and may add value in conveying the correct meaning.

I am a business communications expert and coach, owner of a small communications firm that writes speeches and coaches on public speaking, ghost-writes everything from memos to newsletters to websites, and works with middle- and senior managers on their personal communications effectiveness.

My coaching on writing skills includes the following tips -

* for memos and emails, net things out in a "topline" at the top, giving an exec summary of the content and conclusion, plus any asks or key dates
* use bullets heavily because the eye is drawn to them and people will skim a finite list more readily than a dense paragraph
* in informal electronic communication (like an email) it is okay to use bold or colors to draw the eye to key information
* direct language and action-verbs make a more compelling and memorable read
* in a report, as in a resume, lead with the impact and follow with the action that caused it, as in "Drove a 3X increase in production by..."
* Practice, practice, practice, and use trusted proofreaders where possible