When editing anything you write, from short emails to 50-page reports, your guiding rule of thumb should always be: if a word does not help convey my message, delete it. If it does not clarify, it clutters. For example, while the following sentence gets its point across: “We would like to convey the ability we have to provide the industry’s highest level of customer service with certified and trained support personnel,” it gets the point across even better after cutting a few words and moving a key phrase into the subject position: “Our certified, trained support personnel provide the industry’s highest level of customer service.” Keep an eye out for empty strings of words like this: “would like to convey the ability we have to.” The whole thing can be 86ed.
Don’t Rush Important Writing Projects
Whip out emails and memos, but set aside the appropriate amount of time to write important projects. Shut the door, stick a strip of police tape across the opening of your cubicle, turn off the phone, clear your desk, take a deep breath… then take the time to 1) think and plan your project, and 2) write it. The project will go easier, faster and what you write will be more intelligent and professional than if you rush through it.
Get Used to Throwing It Away
Writing is rewriting, and that means writing more words than you will end up using–and throwing away the rest. That’s a tough pill to swallow for those who don’t like to write in the first place or, out of concern for the environment, hate to throw anything away. But the undeniable fact is that good writers write more words than they need and toss the leftovers. A tough concept to get used to, but a big step to improving one’s writing.
Develop an Attitude
Some people make the act of writing more difficult by simply THINKING that writing is difficult—and that they’re poor writers. They psych themselves out before they even lift a pen or strike a key. The solution is to fight fire with fire: Psych yourself UP by developing the reverse attitude just before you begin the project. Say to yourself: “Who cares what anybody thinks about my writing. The main goal here is to get the proposal [or whichever project you are working on] finished and off my desk.” Next, write a brief outline of the points you must cover. Keep it simple. Once you’ve covered the points, stop writing. You’re done. Concentrate on completing the project, not how well it’s written. I say this because almost to a one, the people I meet are much better writers than they think they are. You’re your own worst critic!
Never Underestimate the Power of a Metaphor
How do you describe a long, complex process or complicated product in one sentence? Use a simile or metaphor.
Writing Task: Describe how a computer operating system works to someone who is computer illiterate.
One of Many Possible Solutions: A computer operating system is like the electrical wiring system in your house—a power system that doesn’t do much of anything until you “plug in and turn on” a microwave/browser, lamp/word processing application, toaster/spreadsheet—you get the idea.
Some people would write paragraph after paragraph trying to explain a computer operating system, confusing their readers more and more with every sentence they wrote. But once you nail your topic in a short simile or metaphor, and your reader understands what you’re talking about right away, you can then add more detailed, explanatory information without confusing your reader.
Start at the Finish Line
Before you write an e-mail, letter, or report, write down (in one sentence) what you want your reader to do after they read it. Then write a list of the points that will persuade them to take that action. Your one-sentence goal and list of points will be a good outline to follow while writing the document.