Like everything, once you get used to doing something a couple of times, the easier it gets. The same holds true for writing e-mails, processes, procedures, or any type of written communication associated with company business. A blank piece of paper, Word doc, spreadsheet, PowerPoint, or e-mail can seem daunting at first. The hardest part is that first word or data entry. Once you get started, however, the words or figures will start flowing. You will be able to type out your thoughts and get your point across. You might run into a dry spell and have to take a break, however, it is imperative to never give up until it is completed.
The purpose of business writing is to share or request information. The information must be complete, concise, and accurate. The information needs to be written in a way the reader can easily understand. This holds true whether it is something you’re asking them to do, or what it is you need from them.
Correct use of grammar and spelling is essential. The good news is you can use spell-checks to check your spelling or go to a site like www.dictionary.com. You can even easily find words you can substitute with another through a site like www.thesaurus.com. However, when it comes to grammar, it’s not quite as easy to check for grammatical inaccuracies as spelling inaccuracies. If you are uncomfortable with your use of grammar in written communications, you should find some books on grammar, or take a basic course as soon as possible. That should be a priority. You will be judged on the way you write, and you will lose respect if your grammar skills are that of a 5th grader.
When it is an informal subject, most likely through e-mail, write like you are talking to the person. See and imagine the conversation in your mind. You can even act out the conversation verbally, but quietly so no one thinks you’re talking to yourself... If you use hard words and phrases, it will look like you are trying too hard. Just be yourself.
When it is a formal subject, like an important process, then you need to keep it formal. Pretend you are describing how to do the tasks in a classroom environment and document as such. Try to imagine the person who will be following this process, and how it would best read for them. Determine if it should be a step-by-step process or a flowchart process. Just remember, “less is more” in most circumstances. If you are too wordy, people will lose interest and not fully comprehend what it is you are trying to say. You might need to write a couple of drafts until you get it just right. A good idea is to have someone who you trust and understands the tasks at hand to review the process before you send it out to everyone.
You have to carefully judge the situation and the importance of each type of message you are communicating. Here are 5 steps you should follow:
· Message - is basically just a simple object of communication. Mostly a communication of thoughts and ideas via e-mail or instant message.
· Policy - describes a management decision (what should be done). When writing a policy, keep the following in mind:
a. Write a title in six words or less
i. Who is (or is not) covered?
ii. Where does (or doesn’t) the policy apply?
iii. When does (or doesn’t) the policy come into effect?
c. List management decisions and any exceptions (E.g. Management has decided that…).
d. The name, and if possible the signature, of the person who will authorize the policy.
· Process - is any series of actions or operations viewed as a whole, with a start and a finish. In some cases a process might not have steps, it may simply be a continuum.
· Procedure - lists steps needed to complete an action in chronological order that involves two or more people (who does what and when). An action includes all the steps a team must take to finish a particular work or reach a goal. Every action begins with a trigger that tells the first team member to go, and a target that tells the last team member to stop.
· Task - outlines in order the steps one person takes to complete a procedure (how to do it). The key to this definition is one person. If the work remains in the hands of just one person for more than 5 or 6 steps, it’s a task, not a procedure. A task can be thought of as a procedure for one.
· Spelling and grammatical errors.
· Look for omitted words.
· Reduce the use of long words. Try to use one and two syllable words. Overuse of long words will cause many readers to miss the point.
· Make sure sentences do not run too long. Two 16-word sentences let readers grasp more than a single 32-word sentence.
· The subheading or subject line should say something of relative importance regarding the main point of the subject. This will give an indication of what is to follow in the paragraph, e-mail, etc. The subheading or subject line does not have to contain 100% of the subject, but it should contain more than just one generic word. A generic subheading or subject line can mean anything and does not set up the subject to follow.
· Try to use fewer words with active subjects and verbs. Active verbs, when the subject of the sentence is the doer of the action, cuts the length and keeps the readers awake. Try not to use passive verbs, especially when writing processes and procedures. You should write it as “who does what.” If you use passive verbs, the readers won't know who's responsible. For example:
§ Active: The data technician fixed the widget.
§ Passive: The widget was fixed. [Who fixed the widget is not named]
· Stay away from vague modifiers; they will just create unanswered questions. This is especially true when writing processes and procedures. Readers want clear directions, not words like “appropriate, proper, relevant, timely, or normal.” For example, a statement like “forward to the proper or appropriate department in a timely fashion” does not state the department in which to forward, not to mention in what timeframe (is it 2 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours?).
· Don’t try to cram everything onto one page. A full page of crammed text overwhelms the eyes. It’s ok to have plenty of white space. Besides, it also gives space for notes, etc.
· Try not to have long paragraphs. There is a certain visual and mental effort required to read them. Three short paragraphs are easier to read than one long paragraph.
· When writing processes or procedures, try to keep the width of the page to around 40 characters. Readers tend to grasp information when reading narrower columns.
· When writing directions, always list the steps in chronological order.
· Look for missing words at the end of a sentence.
· Look for improper use of heterographics like to, too, two, and there, their, they’re. Also your and you’re.
Try to edit as much as you can while you are proofreading. After you are done proofreading, make one more read for any additional editing. This holds true whether it is just a short e-mail to a long and involved process. You will also find that auto spell checks will sometimes make corrections that were not part of your intentions.
Here are a couple of key points to keep in mind when writing e-mails, processes, etc:
Manager, Customer Support
123 Main Street
City, State, Zip