Crafting a clear, well-organized message requires that you ask a few important questions and think before you start writing.
Resist the impulse to plunge into every communication and immediately start typing. Asking questions about your message and the audience can give you a clear sense of what you want to say, and then organizing that information will further ensure that it’s easy to read. The questions you ask yourself might vary depending on the type of communication you are writing, but here are a few that can apply to almost anything you write.
- What is the most important information I want the reader to know? In such things as email, formal memos, policy statements, and benefits announcements, you might have several things you want the reader to know, but if she only looks at it once and deletes it, what are the one or two things you want her to take away? If it’s an article, what is the focus of the piece, the thematic element that ties the piece together?
- Does the reader have enough context to know what I’m talking about? Weave in a sentence or even a few words referencing a previous conversation, an action, or some other detail that will help give the reader a complete picture of what you are writing about. You might assume the reader will know because you just talked about it last week, but think about the volume of information the reader has processed in the last seven days. Puzzled readers are forced to search for answers, either by scrolling down through old messages or by jumping to other pages or websites, and it’s annoying.
Most people have received occasional email messages that contain one sentence, such as this: “Great idea. I’ll talk with you then.” If you sent the original message four days ago and the person is just getting around to responding, you read the response and wonder, what is the great idea? And when is then? You shouldn’t have to dig for the answers. Such context is valuable to the reading experience.
- How much detail does the reader need on this topic? We frequently deliver far more information than the reader needs, thereby discouraging the person from reading even the substantive information that is valuable. This happens for two reasons: We think from our own perspective when we write, not the reader’s. We focus on what the reader needs to know, what details are important to include, what tone we should use — all from our perspective. Force yourself to think from the reader’s point of view.
– When we have expertise on a topic, we want to educate others, we want to make a good impression, or perhaps we don’t think the reader will appreciate our research unless we write a Ph.D dissertation. If you think the reader might need additional information, mark it off with the bold heading background information or additional details.
- In what order should I talk about these topics? Determine an order by listing your topics, even if you have only a few. It is not enough to have the ideas in your head, because your brain needs to see them. Thoughts in your head are never in order; they are like molecules bouncing around. When you convert thoughts to language, you need to establish an order for easy readability. By having a visual display of your topics, on the screen or on paper, you can see what is important, what is less important, what can be removed, and what you forgot to put down. Organizing your thoughts can be a big time-saver. Writing and fixing it as you go is not efficient. You are apt to delete information and discover later that you need to replace it, which consumes time. Or you might tinker with a paragraph, trying to make it perfect, only to find that it doesn’t survive the editing process, because once you see the paragraph in the context of all the others, you realize it’s not necessary to include it.
If you could benefit from more writing tips like these, be sure to register for this writing workshop December 5th to fine-tune your writing skills.
Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is availablet here at Amazon.com.