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The Right Way to Write: Composing Clear, Crisp Memos and E-Mail

Digital Library > Building and Inspiring an Organization > Written communication “The Right Way to Write: Composing Clear, Crisp Memos and E-Mail”

Map out your points first and prune away fluff.

If you dread writing or doubt your ability to express yourself on paper, you may contemplate delegating this task. Not so fast. Some documents should come directly from you, in your voice. By sharpening your writing skills, you can gain confidence and draft tighter, more persuasive prose.

Know Your Type

To improve how you write, it helps to know how you think. There are basically two types of entrepreneurs: "Type A directives," who write in a dry, bossy, impersonal tone, and "creative ramblers," who hop from topic to topic in a free-flowing, disorganized manner.

If you tend to bark orders and engage in controlling behavior, your writing may benefit if you loosen up. Strike a more friendly, conversational tone. Lace your writing with questions, not just commands. Involve readers, rather than just dumping data in their laps.

If you tend to babble or go off on tangents when you speak, you may need to rein in your writing. Cut the chatter and avoid impulsive musings or rambling asides. Stick to short, simple sentences. Express key facts explicitly, such as deadlines or action plans. Don’t make readers fight through long paragraphs to unearth your core message.

Each document should have only one purpose. If you find yourself with two or three purposes, write separate documents. Other tips:

Follow the "2 for 1" rule. If you dwell on yourself in your writing, you may turn off your readers. Shower them with attention so that they feel engaged and retain what they read.

For every mention of the word "I," the word "you" should appear twice. That ensures you reach out to others rather than lapse into a me-me-me mold.

Exception: If you’re writing a negative letter, such as a probationary notice, remove pronouns wherever possible. Report observable behavior in neutral, precise language, like a scientist describing the results of an experiment.

Pinpoint the action. In the first few lines, make it easy for readers to figure out what you want them to do. Clearly define the action you want them to take.

If you need to provide background, explain any facts, or recount the history that led up to this action, you may want to use bullets. But don’t bury the action somewhere down the page. Put it right up front so there’s no doubt about it.

Cut "zero words," which add nothing to your document. Delete them. To test whether every word counts, reread your first draft and try taking out phrases or words that aren’t essential. If the meaning doesn’t change, leave them out.

Eliminate prepositional run-ons: People tend to overuse prepositional phrases. Replace "The brochure of our ad campaign for our fall product line …" with "Our fall ad brochure …" to improve clarity.

Writer: Morey Stettner interviewed Merna Skinner, a partner at Exec/Comm, a New York-based communications consulting firm.

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