Build Your Written Communication Skills in 5 Steps

By Robert Half December 6, 2013 at 8:00am

I can trace back the point when I started developing my written communication skills to Mrs. Begley’s third grade class. She asked us to write our own books that year, so they could be entered into the district’s Young Authors book competition. I won! This eight-year-old felt on top of the world. I got to present my book at a special event. I didn’t know it then, but "The Flood of Ice Cream" was launching a lifelong love of writing and, eventually, my career.

Written communication skills may be crucial for you too, for instance, if you have an administrative job where you're drafting memos, emailing clients, or using social media. But if you’re not very good at these tasks, you're likely to create a bad impression. And if you aren't clearly getting the message across with your writing, your chances for promotions, raises and bonuses may be harmed.

If writing abilities are a weakness, the time to improve is now. Here are five easy steps that can make a real difference in developing effective written communication skills:

1. Have the right mind-set

Before you begin any writing project, gather the necessary resources and have them nearby. The more prepared you are, the more relaxed you’ll be as you start. If you’re feeling angry, confused or unhappy, step away from the keyboard. Chances are, you’ll write something you’ll regret later.

2. Sort it out

Make sure you have a game plan in place. What is the main message you want to get across? What do people need to know to support your goal? It’s helpful to write down all your key points in advance, so you don’t forget any. Also create a brief outline of what you’d like to cover in a logical order. This step can be particularly useful for larger documents that need to address many issues.

Learn other ways to make yourself an indispensible asset to your boss and your team.

3. Don’t keep readers in suspense

Professionals with strong written communication skills know that it’s critical to get to the point immediately with any message, or you may lose your audience. Between emails, texts, the Internet, memos and reports, people are on information overload today, and they won’t wade through long-winded materials.

The KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) philosophy is a good one to follow. Include summaries at the beginning of big reports, and use bullets or numbers to separate points (just look at what I’ve done with this blog). Also avoid using acronyms or industry jargon. You may know that the IAAP is a big association for administrative professionals, but your audience may look at IAAP, think “huh?” and get confused or annoyed. Worse yet, they may move on to another pressing task missing your message altogether.

4. Stay professional

As you try to improve your written communication skills, take everything you write seriously, steering clear of any controversial or sensitive subjects. This can be easier said than done, I know. Seriously, who doesn’t want to joke around with coworkers in emails about a ridiculous new company policy? You never know when your email or other message could be forwarded, though. When in doubt, think about whether you’re comfortable with your boss reading what you’ve said.

5. Check it again … and again

Maybe you feel like your written communication skills are on track as you make a compelling case for updating your office’s phone system. However, as you put together your masterpiece, you’re moving along so quickly that the document is filled with typos and spelling mistakes. No worries, you tell yourself, you’ll just run a spellcheck, and all will be fine, right?

Not necessarily. A spellcheck can miss some errors. So it’s worth spending a few extra minutes to reread messages yourself. And ask coworkers to take a look at crucial documents before sending them. That way, you can make sure you’re getting your point across clearly and “wowing” people for the right reasons.

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