Build Your Written Communication Skills in 5 Easy Steps

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

Written communication skills can be useful, even crucial, for career success. If you're good at business writing, you're more likely to create a good impression. But if you aren't getting the message across clearly with your words, your chances for getting jobs, promotions, raises and bonuses may be harmed.

Whether you’re sending a winning cover letter to a hiring manager, a memo to a colleague, a report to your team or an email to a client, know that crisp, highly focused and error-free writing signals that you’re someone who is organized, knowledgeable and detail-oriented. Congratulations!

Conversely, written communications that are long-winded, imprecise or strewn with typos, leave readers wondering about how you handle other aspects of your job. If your business writing abilities are a weakness, the time to improve is now.

How can you develop written communication skills?

Writing can be intimidating, but as with most things, practice helps. So does learning the basics. You can do that by taking a business-writing course at your local community college or an online workshop. Asking a trusted coworker, friend, or family member to review your words can also help with your writing skills.

Here are five 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. First-rate writing does not happen by accident. Before placing a single finger on the keyboard, take a moment to organize your thoughts and identify the primary purpose of the written communication. Who is your audience? What do you want people to know or do when they finish reading what you've written? Keep those answers top of mind as you write.

2. Sort it out

Make sure you have a game plan in place. What is the main message you want to get across? What research materials do you need to have handy? It’s helpful to handwrite all the key points you want to make 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.

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3. Write in a straightforward manner

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

Many people also weigh down their written communications with buzzwords and cliches, jargon and pretentious prose. This approach only muddles the message. (“Let’s have a quick meeting” is much better than “Let’s mindshare to align and synergize our deliverables.”) Impress readers with your cogent thinking, not your mastery of corporate-speak. Nobody will miss the overused clichés and fancy $5 words.

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 (like we've done with this blog post). Also avoid using acronyms or industry jargon. Use too many confusing or annoying abbreviations, and your audience 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. 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 written.

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 plenty of errors. So it’s worth spending a few extra minutes to reread messages yourself and even have another person check them or read them aloud to yourself. Build your written communications skills and review what you write for typos, tone and clarity. That way, you can make sure you’re getting your point across clearly and “wowing” people for the right reasons.

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