There comes a time when every organization must face a cold reality—developing a consistent written voice can be hard. “Wait a second,” you might say to yourself, “my organization doesn’t really do much with writing.” But think about it—chances are, you have already sent a text, drafted an email, or otherwise written something down since you woke up this morning. Because we live in a text-centric society, writing is inescapable, and for many people you interact with, it may be their first impression of your organization. With that in mind, it’s important to be intentional about how we write and edit.
Here are some tips we’ve collected through our experience.
Pick a tone that matches both you and your organization.
There’s nothing worse than having an email conversation with someone and feeling like you’re talking to a computer. Tone is often a challenge to convey in text, particularly because many of us hear the echoes of high school English classes making us second-guess the “rules” for writing. If your organization is more informal, think about textual features that mirror conversational tactics—it could be as simple as adding more exclamation points(!). Conversely, if formality is baked into your workplace culture, consider the language choices that would convey professionalism, such as “hedging”—using buffer words and phrases—for social etiquette. Think about the tonal difference between “Email me back ASAP” and “When you get a minute, could you please confirm our schedule?” They are easy additions to make, and they clearly indicate your position to the reader.
Keep it Simple
As a potential counterpoint to the last tip, don’t go overboard. If we’re insecure—or maybe too proud—it’s easy clutter our writing with complicated vocabulary in the name of professionalism. When this happens, the reader will feel like they walked into a fancy office with expensive furniture thrown around the room. It’s distracting and muddles your communication. Simply put, if you can’t manage your message, your audience may wonder if you can manage your work. While that sounds dire, a good metric is this: If it sounds like you broke out the thesaurus, you should edit for simplicity. There’s always a clearer way to say something.
Structure According to Your Focus.
Alright, those last two tips were abstract, but we’re getting practical here with a continued look at clarity. Whatever your message is, think about how you want your audience to engage with it. There are several possible scenarios below:
- If you’re sharing information, think about using an inverted-pyramid structure—Provide answers to each of the Wh-questions at the start of your message and provide supporting details below. By answering who, what, when, where, why, and so what, the reader has a concise summary, and all the subsequent information merely clarifies it.
- If your focus is more narrative, think about a regular pyramid—You may start with the context and background that will build to a key punchline or takeaway.
- If your focus is relational or rapport-building, it may be helpful to think about Grice’s conversational maxims and their corresponding questions—Did you write enough? Did you try to be honest? Did you try to be relevant? Did you try to be clear?
Ultimately, in each of these structures, your job is to preemptively consider how your message will be received and how you would like it to be received. With a little practice, you can shrink—or even eliminate—the gap between the two.
Check for Parallelism
Finally, one common mistake people make in writing is also a very easy one to fix—a lack of parallelism. As the phrase suggests, parallelism is the idea that sequential items should match. When we read, we naturally assume that the relationship between different parts of a message will be clear. Think about the difference between a bad list and a good list:
- Connect with readers.
- We will increase our budget.
- Not neglecting supporters.
When we read this list, we understand the information, but each item is different enough that the inconsistency trips us up. It’s difficult to tell how the points relate to each other. Now consider a good list:
- Connect with readers.
- Increase our budget
- Focus on supporters
As you’ll notice, this one is much more readable because each item follows the structure of leading with a strong verb. It’s such a small and easy change to make, but it makes a big difference. It’s also good to look for this in compound sentences, or any other structure you could describe as a sequence.
At the end of the day, effective editing is rooted in understanding the potential for miscommunication. Beyond grammatical quick fixes and word choice changes, it is about considering all the possible ways that a reader might react and using that information to make sure your message is clear.
We hope this was helpful! If you have any questions, we’re here to help you. You can reach us at email@example.com.