The ABCs of better writing skills

Byby Rich Heintz, former Job Journal editor
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
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SACRAMENTO (JobJournal) -- When the outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray and Christmas asked 100 top human resources executives what skill recent college grads lacked, good writing topped the list. "Shortened syntax, incomplete sentences and no punctuation may be acceptable for instant messaging between friends, but most offices require a much higher level of sophistication, even in emails between co-workers," noted CEO John Challenger.

Once upon a time, when I could hold both my boys on my lap, I loved reading children's stories aloud. It was a nightly ritual I relished and, more often than not, I stumbled upon stories that made me marvel. I never, for example, would have thought the plight of a pig would command my attention. Yet, as I read the story of Charlotte's Web, I found myself riveted to the writing.

When I looked to see who wrote it, my jaw dropped. Where, I wondered, did one of America's most influential men of letters get the inspiration to write a children's book? I should say books. (Remember Stuart Little?)

To me, E.B. White was co-author of the biggest little book on the art of writing, The Elements of Style. To this day, I recommend the pocket book to all who want to write better.

Elements is a model of brevity and, by example, sets the standard for any aspiring writer. In essence, the authors are saying "See, good writing is easy." In no more than a few hours, the book will provide you with more insight about writing than you can remember learning in high school or college.

Regardless of whether it's an integral part of your job, writing is an invaluable skill, especially if you realize that clear writing reflects (and requires) clear thinking. Sloppy writing, on the other hand, can indicate a shoddy attitude toward performance.

How else can you improve your writing? Below are a few pointers I have developed over the years.

  • The key to all good writing is rewriting. Write the first draft without fear, knowing that you can make any necessary changes on the next go round.
  • Use your own words. Don't puff up your writing with pompous language. Also avoid jargon. Good writing is creative, complete and concise - several steps above a casual email without approaching the sentence structure of the tax code.
  • Know your audience. My primary audience is comprised of jobseekers. Who are you writing to? Your current or prospective boss? The board of directors? By imagining your audience as you write, your work will improve. What do they need to know? What will interest them? What will they find extraneous?
  • Search for the dramatic. In my business, news is drama. What dramatic things have happened in your career? Search out the unusual and use it in your cover letters. If you are working on a research report for work, organize your writing around the most interesting findings. Let content shape style.
  • If you have time, set your writing aside for several days. You will be surprised what time will tell you. Good writing rings true; weak wording wilts.
  • Put your subconscious to work. Sometimes by switching from project to project, I find my subconscious comes up with a better phrase or approach. I have come to look at this skill as my own personal writing assistant.
  • Read what you write. Sounds pretty basic. Yet consider these errors my employer received from real applicants. Would you hire the person who wrote "I am very interesting in this position." Or the masochistic soul who wrote "Objective: Seeking an entry-level position with a stale company." How about this possessed individual: "Administrative professional with years of experience in a stock broker." Then there is the master of language who wrote: "I have a BA in English. This will avail it's self in the writing of the advertisements. I can writing using phrases and abbreviations as well." Clearly these writers' thoughts were lost in translation. So were their opportunities.
  • Ask a friend to read your work. Even if you proofread your own writing, you may miss something. Ask someone whose language skills you respect to give your writing the once over.
  • Develop a thick skin. You have to learn to accept criticism without taking it personally. Every writer's career is punctuated with red ink. The more you embrace the help, the more you will learn.

Finally, you can improve your writing by reading. By exposing yourself to the written word, you subconsciously develop an educated ear for the language. Certainly it helped my boys. It's my belief my sons grew up able to write so well because I spent all those hours reading to them. Call it a father's fairy tale.

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