After Hours

10+ tips for keeping your writing sharp and professional


Writing abilities are among the most important business skills for a CIO, senior IT manager, or any IT person seeking a promotion. Yet the rules of good writing are often elusive. This list covers some of the critical areas you should keep in mind when writing anything from a lengthy business report to a memo, letter, or e-mail. Our follow-up post offers some additional tips. You can also download the complete checklist in PDF format for quick reference.

#1: Plan your writing

Before you actually start to write, put some thought into what you're going to write. First, determine your purpose and your primary audience. Decide what information you need to give your audience -- and what information you don't. Figure out the best way to convey your message. Focus on being objective and convincing so that your message appeals to both the receptive and resistant members of your audience.

#2: Do your homework

Research your topic so that you aren't just relying on opinion. Collect and analyze data. Incorporate visual aids (charts, graphs, tables, photos, etc.) when appropriate.

#3: Write drafts

Don't expect perfection in the beginning. In fact, your final product will be much better if you start by cranking out a crappy first draft. As writer Anne Lamott observed, "All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts." Concentrate on the content of the writing, and be sure -- above all -- that it is accurate.

#4: Revise for style, correct grammar, and spelling

Writers who fail at this step lose credibility with their readers. Buy a good grammar handbook and dictionary and use them whenever you're unsure about punctuation and spelling. When in doubt, call on a trusted colleague to look over your work. See "10 flagrant grammar mistakes that make you look stupid" for a list of common errors.

#5: Choose effective wording

Use language that is concise and familiar rather than verbose and academic.

Examples:

Use, not utilize; shortage, not paucity. Avoid clichés, slang, and buzzwords.

#6: Watch out for commonly confused words and phrases

Many words are easily mixed up, such as:

  • accept/except
  • advice/advise
  • affect/effect
  • its/it's
  • lay/lie
  • passed/past
  • personal/personnel
  • moral/morale
  • sit/set
  • real/really
  • your/you're
  • their/they're
  • theirs/there's

Learn to use these words correctly and double-check to make sure the wrong form doesn't get by you.

#7: Be precise

Use specific, concrete words.

Examples:

Three, not several; boat or car, not vehicle. Watch out for words such as recently, substantial, a few, and a lot. Try to be more exact. Give your reader a specific mental picture of what you mean.

#8: Write concisely

Businesspeople are too busy for wordy writing. Keep your reports, memos, and other business documents as brief and clear as possible.

#9: Avoid redundancy

Many repetitive phrases can be tightened into one word.

Examples:

History, not past history; plan, not plan ahead; sum or total, not sum total, to, not in order to.

#10: Vary your sentence structure

Mix up simple, compound, and complex sentences. Use both short and long sentences to keep your writing interesting.

#11: Use active voice

Active voice makes your writing more powerful and direct. In an active voice construction, the subject of a sentence acts or does something rather than being acted upon or done to.

Example:

Sam Grey audited the books last month.

Not:

The books were audited by Sam Grey last month.

Exception:

Passive voice may be permissible if the receiver of the action is more important than the doer of the action.

Example:

Transportation to the other buildings on campus will be provided.

#12: Avoid sentence fragments

A sentence fragment can be the result of poor grammar or a careless mixture of sentences and phrases:

Example:

Couple of things. First, make sure you disconnect the power supply.

Exception:

What should you expect if you bring in the project under budget? A promotion.

As long as you know what you're doing, and it's not likely to be misunderstood, this is permissible (and sometimes desirable, for stylistic effect; see #10).

#13: Avoid run-on sentences

A run-on sentence contains two independent clauses that are incorrectly separated by only a comma. Instead, they should be connected by a semicolon, or a period, or by both a comma and a conjunction. This does not relate to the length of a sentence, just the improper connection between the clauses.

Examples:

The network is down; call the administrator.

Or:

The network is down, so call the administrator.

Not:

The network is down, call the administrator.

4 comments
AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Remember, you can use passive to avoid pointing fingers, when there is no need to. My car was towed. (unfortunate) The City towed my car. (hissy fit) Hissy fits are unprofessional. Only point fingers when you want to.

aspir8or
aspir8or

If the network is down, call the administrator. If that is correct, then when starting a sentence with a conjunction, does that change the rule? And if so, does it change it in every case? Thank you for your articles. I've always considered myself a good writer of English, but you've shown me that there is always room for improvement.

MissDorkness
MissDorkness

Thanks, these are all practical tips (and I foresee my self sharing this checklist with others). I refuse to accept the belief that the only thing important in technical writing is the technical content itself. Writing well will get your point across most accurately, and will enhance your image of professionalism. If we've got enough competence to master our field, we've certainly got the competence to follow a checklist like this. If we haven't got the time for proper grammar, how can we convince our customers or peers that we've got the time to pay attention to the details of anything else we do?

rwparks.it
rwparks.it

These are great simple tips for writing professional documents. But it's missing a key point: Write To Your Audience. Know who will be reading your document, and write in terms and style they understand. In the Fast IT world, we often must get to the point; we don't have the time for perfect grammer. Simply said: * Communicate the point to your audience. p.s. Thanks for your tips - this is my 2nd draft.

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