By Peter J. Brennan author of “How to Write at Work – Full bio below
The chief executive of a successful company that’s hired hundreds of engineers leaned over his conference table to tell me something surprising.
“You have an important skill – writing,” he told me. “It is key in my business. I have a whole bunch of talented engineers who don’t know how to write.”
The comment surprised me. I thought the workers who can calculate the angles and weight loads were more important than those of us who understand the verb-subject agreement. I’m a story teller, not a builder of buildings.
While this CEO could find the engineers, he had trouble finding the engineers who could write the successful proposals that win projects.
Then the CEO of a bank told me that writing English well is so crucial that he encourages his firm to consider hiring humanities majors in addition to those with business or finance degrees. He needs bankers who can write customized market research reports to convince potential customers of the benefits of doing business with the bank.
Nowadays, the career path that follows STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, is often rewarded with the higher paying jobs.
It’s easy to forget that even in these days of word check and Grammarly, writing well is still difficult. I’m sure many professionals fell asleep during their 10th grade grammar lessons when the split infinitives were taught; I myself speak from experience.
Smart bosses read the writing of their employees as signals to determine how intelligent that person is and whether they merit a pay raise or job promotion.
If you use the word irregardless, it’s a sign that you are careless regardless of how well you do calculus. If you cannot remember the difference between good and well, it’s a sign you might embarrass your bosses in public. If you need 500 words to say what could be written in 200, it’s a sign you bullshitted your college professors.
Here are eight quick tips to improve your writing at work:
- Your headline and your first sentence are prime real estate. Don’t block the view of your most important information by including information that can be added later in the message.
- Acronyms are the quickest way to put your audience to sleep. Try to keep them to a minimum.
- Understand your audience. Write to what you think they know. We journalists are taught to avoid jargon. However, if your readers know industry jargon, use it to show your knowledge.
- Write down the most common mistakes you make –longhand — then try to avoid them. The physical act of writing your mistakes, not typing them, is a great memory tool.
- Don’t lose the pronoun. Make sure it matches the noun it refers to.
- Pay close attention to what is between the commas to see if that phrase is absolutely needed. Commas are the signs in the writing forest to tell you the direction of your sentence.
- Adjectives and adverbs are great for creating writing. They’re troublemakers in business writing.
- Dangling modifiers sound like deep secrets that only professional writers can find. In truth, writers consider them pieces of comedy. It’s like watching someone fall while walking on ice. It’s not truly funny, but you cannot help but laugh and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Take this sentence:
Running along the lake, the trees provided me with shade.
It’d be quite a sight to see running trees, wouldn’t it?
Peter J. Brennan is the Financial Editor at The Orange County Business Journal. He recently published “How to Write at Work: Quickly Create Great Messages,” which is available in paperback or Kindle on Amazon.com.
Article by Peter J. Brennan