I write on the job all the time: CVs, questionnaires to ask clients for information for the CVs, proposals to clients for how to use the CV, memos to senior executives to confirm that I have understood their personal statement information correctly. But, I have often asked myself, how can I – indeed, can I? – ensure that my writing is as clear and effective as possible? How do I make my communications stand out?
Discussion with hundreds of clients over many years has taught me that many overworked writers with little time might think that improving their writing is a boring exercise to which they pay little attention. But I have noticed over many years working freelance and often remotely from other writers but in the same group, as it were, knowing how to fashion an interesting and intelligent sentence is essential to communicating effectively, winning business, and setting yourself apart. I discovered that the way I craft sentences on my CV-selling website or in my introductory email reply to speculative enquiries is very important; and, from enquiries made with prospective clients, is key to them deciding whether they wish to continue with me. The difference between what they may have perceived as my poor – in their eyes – construction, and to-the-point, expansive, open, descriptive writing is key.
“As Marvin Swift memorably said, clear writing means clear thinking,” said Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.”
So, how do I optimise both my writing for my initial sell, and my writing of that sold product?
I think before I write.
Before I put pen to paper or hands to keyboard, I consider what I want to say and how I want to say it. I have undoubtedly been guilty of starting to write prematurely, working out the thoughts as I’m writing. Initially I never noticed but fine-tuning over time taught me that this approach makes my writing less structured, meandering, and repetitive. I began to ask myself: what should my audience know or think after reading this email, CV, application form or report? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, I am moving too quickly and failing to think through the recipient, their request, their own style as they contacted me, whether there was inferred desperation, and so on.
I try to be direct – but not too direct.
In this regard, my business correspondence tends to be very much in line with my CV build: I make my point quickly and from the start. Many people say they find that the writing style and structure they developed in school doesn’t work as well in the business world. One of the biggest downfalls in business writing is postponing the message to the middle part of the writing. Like the CV, my reader will become bored. They’ll think: I wanted to know, can you write me a CV, yes or no; I didn’t need a 5-line ramble about the process.
By succinctly presenting my main direct response, or, in the case of a proposal, idea first, I save the reader time and sharpen my argument before getting into the detail. For example, I have enquired in the past to potential joint venture partners on LinkedIn. My opening line is always “You don’t know me but……”. This might be counterproductive and they may then delete it. My thinking is that, on balance, if we assume some will delete it, my being honest from the start hopefully means a higher percentage will read on.
Those of you familiar with my view of CV summaries is that they should be short, succinct and have zero waffle. The same should apply to the bulk of anyone’s business writing. When writing longer memos and proposals, I have a knack for summarising, I think, quite well. I am busy so I have to assume the client is also. If my opener is no good, then the whole piece of writing will be no good.
So, cut the fat. Don’t use three words when one will do. Cut every unnecessary word or sentence. There’s no need to say general consensus of opinion, for instance, when consensus will do. The minute readers feel that a piece of writing is verbose they start tuning out. The client should be able to follow and get a clear sense of my plan almost immediately: I don’t want to drown them in minutiae.
I always – always – avoid jargon. So-called buzzwords, and acronyms. And while these terms are sometimes unavoidable and can occasionally be helpful as shorthand, they often indicate lazy or cluttered thinking. I know that if I litter a CV or proposal with them, the reader will assume I am on autopilot — or worse, not understand what I’m saying. You have to look frankly almost nowhere to find that the majority of CV and proposal writers will take the same view: jargon doesn’t add any value, it actually turns the reader off. Above, I could have said “JVP” for “joint venture partner”. Its use would be arrogant. It simply says that I assume you know what I’m talking about. Assumption in CV or proposal writing is a dangerous position to adopt. I know many CV writers who mistakenly believe using a big word when a simple one will do is a sign of intelligence. It’s not.
I read what I write.
I always put myself in the reader’s shoes. Is my point clear and well structured? Are the sentences straightforward and concise? Do I have gaps in my arguments, clunky sentences, sections that are three paragraphs too long. I have a colleague I have worked with for many years. As a trained proofreader, she is well-placed to review my language and shred it where necessary. I welcome her feedback.
I practice all the time – I never assume I am always right.
The verbosity of others as well as my own reviews of work I did not just 10 years ago but 2 years, 11 months, 3 months, continues to remind me that writing is a skill. My proofreading colleague has often given me – usually at my request though we have a good enough relationship that she sometimes suggests it – well-written material, usually her own, where she has been attentive to word choice, sentence structure, and flow. It took me too long to realise that it is time well spent because good writers distinguish themselves on the job. I hope – and, to a degree, believe – that is why my contract-to-freelance ratio has slowly moved in the right direction – (sic) 80% to 20%, to 70% to 30%.
You need knowledge and skills of something you do well that you can develop into a business. Most of this I’ve gained from past employment. Other knowledge may come from reading – blogs, journals, critiques on CV structure (but also reasoning, do we need them, what resume writers think, etc.). When I write for anyone, I always go online. I research their field.
I try to balance self-confidence with arrogance.
I always provide every client with extensive review notes and I add to those a number of links to reputable recruiters and CV writers. I have also, over many years, deliberately garnered LinkedIn recommendations – as I write this I have over 200. The two combined means I have put myself in a very strong position to manoeuvre and manage the client. I don’t in any sense feel that I strong-arm them into my way of thinking just because I want to. Rather, the overwhelming two-pronged evidence means that they’re far more likely to take it that I have some idea that I know what I’m doing. This also has a snowball effect. The more I can do this, the more my recommendations build, the more clients I secure, the more likely I am to receive recommendations; and so it continues.
This is beyond how I feel about my abilities. It’s a driving force that helps me to overcome many obstacles, especially those thrown up by well-meaning but misguided clients who suggest that they feel my idea won’t work, or that the document lacks the necessary qualities the client feels it needs.
In short, my advice would be
-Plan out what you will say to make your writing more direct and effective.
-Use words sparingly and keep sentences short and to the point.
-Avoid jargon and “fancy” words. Strive for clarity instead.
-Argue that you simply can’t write. Anyone can become a better writer with practice.
-Pretend that your first draft is perfect, or even passable. Every first draft can be improved.
-Bury your argument. Present your main idea as soon as possible.