When it comes to writing, lawyers are notoriously loquacious. Just ask Kate Erickson, a former lawyer turned human resources professional.
“Lawyers are the first to admit their writing is ridiculously wordy,” Kate told me in a phone conversation. “They have trouble making the leap from the language required in a formal contract to less formal email conversations with clients, where they need to explain legal implications.”
Erickson told me she recently improved her own business writing. It’s clearer, easier to follow, and more persuasive thanks to the new book, Why Your Writing Sucks, by Marcia Ross, a Toronto author, business writer and workshop leader.
Ross’ upbeat and unconventional book isn’t just for lawyers. It helps anyone who communicates via a keyboard be more succinct in their day-to-day writing.
While WYWS is short (the Kindle edition is just 164 pages) it packs a powerful punch delivering easy-to-understand suggestions for boosting your business writing skills.
Improve Your Business Writing Skills for the Digital Age
Here’s a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of how Why Your Writing Sucks teaches you to become a better communicator.
#1 Four reasons your writing sucks
According to Ross, 4 simple reasons are at the heart of bad business writing:
- Well-meaning grade school teachers led you astray in grade school
- Equally misguided bosses compound the problem
- Most business writers over-compose and under-edit
- Instead of writing for your reader, you write for yourself
With the odds heavily stacked against effective writing, is it even possible to overcome the bad habits you learned at a young age? Ross says yes and her breezy style and solid tips make improvement a cinch.
#2 Up your game with 7 composition actions
In the digital world, writing is more important than ever—it replaces many of the in-person or over-the-phone conversations of a decade ago. These days effective writing is an essential skill. If you can’t write persuasively, chances are you’ll be less effective and productive in your job.
When your writing is hard to follow, your reader quickly becomes bored and distracted, clicking away to something more interesting. Your message is lost for the simple reason the reader didn’t bother to read it.
But how do you make your writing more interesting? WYWS provides 7 composition tips with short words, short sentences and short paragraphs all at the top of the list.
#3 Editing is the secret sauce
Instead of spending your time composing, spend more time editing. Depending on the format of your written piece, Ross suggests dedicating 10% to 40% of your time editing.
Editing is a skill anyone can learn; it just takes practice. Edit everything you write. If you spend 60-seconds on an email, use 45 seconds for the actual writing and 15 seconds for editing.
Like almost everything else in life, you’ll become a better editor the more you practice.
#4 Beating writer’s block
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? I thought so.
Ross’ solution is to “free write.” She has a handy acronym—BARF (Blow Away Restrictions—Flow!)—to remind you to sit down, write, and keep writing.
Many writing experts recommend a similar approach. Anne Handley suggests embracing The Ugly First Draft (TUFD) in her book, Everybody Writes.
And Daphne Gray Grant, in her book 8 ½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, advises you give yourself permission to write “garbage” by writing as fast as you can, stopping later to clean up your mess.
#5 Divide and conquer
Whatever you do, don’t write and edit at the same time. Ross compares this behaviour to writing while someone nags over your shoulder. It’s tough to write if you constantly tell yourself your writing is dreadful.
Daphne Gray Grant contends that part of our brain excels at brainstorming, while another part is good at organizing. “While you are trying to write, you want your writing brain to be fully engaged and the only one in charge,” she suggests. “That means no criticizing, no judging, no evaluating. Just writing.”
#6 Hearing the other guy’s head
Do you know what makes writing a whole lot easier … and a whole lot more persuasive? Understand who you’re writing for, then visualize that person in your mind as you write.
Ross recommends starting with your goal. Next identify your audience by focusing on their needs and interests. The latter, also called a buyer persona, helps ensure you’re not writing for yourself, but for the person you’re trying to persuade.
#7 A wee sprinkling of grammar
WYWS avoids grammar lectures but Ross includes some useful tips at the end of her book to address the most common infractions:
- Proper capitalization
- The difference between they’re, their and there
- That versus which
- He or she and him or her
- The passive versus the active voice
Business writing skills matters
Whether you’re writing a short email, composing a blog post, or drafting a marketing recommendation, the writing quality counts. Why waste your time (and your reader’s) with convoluted copy?
Pick up (or download) a copy of Why Your Writing Sucks. By making a small investment in time and money, WYWS helps you quickly make small improvements to your writing—with potentially big returns on your career.
If you need help with the work required before you start to write, such as buyer personas, keyword research, editorial calendars and more, get in touch.