I've read more than 500 business books over the past decade, and they've given me access to some of the best minds on how to lead, market, and grow a business. But as a fringe benefit of all that reading, I've gained a stronger understanding of what it means to write well and communicate with authority.
Each author I read offers a distinct voice that sets him or her apart and reinforces the value of writing and language in establishing leadership and influence. Writing has always been a hallmark of the business world, but never has it been more important. Writing pervades our professional and personal lives, from email to text messages to social media, and the way you command language determines your credibility and persuasiveness and directly impacts your reputation.
Your writing, after all, reflects your thinking. Disorganized or imprecise language often points to muddled thoughts, whereas direct, influential writing stems from a clear thought process. Here, then, are five classic pieces of writing advice to help you clear up your writing -- and your thinking -- through impactful and strategic uses of language.
1. Read. No bit of writing advice is complete without the directive to read. And for good reason. Learning to write well is like learning a language. If you want to accelerate the process, you have to immerse yourself in writing. But don't just spend time reading the backs of cereal boxes or your friends' Facebook posts. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan directs, you should read what you want to write. That means consciously combing through top business publications so you can pick up the vocabulary, phrases, contexts, and rhythms their writers use. Think about how these writers organize material to effectively argue a point, establish authority, or simply encourage you to keep reading.
2. Get inside your readers' heads. "Know your audience" is, of course, the highest law in writing. But this advice has been repeated so often that its meaning has worn thin. Obviously an email to an important client should use a much different tone, style, and vocabulary than an email to your significant other. But to truly connect with either of these audiences, it's not enough to simply know who's on the receiving end of the conversation. You need to account for your readers' knowledge, values, and biases and truly empathize with them in order to step into their perspective. Only by understanding how your readers think and feel can you focus your language in a way that best resonates with your audience.
3. Prune your vocabulary to keep language fresh. Most of the time, a wide vocabulary gives a writer more agility when constructing sentences. But if that vocabulary includes clichés, writers can upend otherwise well-written sentences. When I see companies described as "innovative," "leading," and "unique," for example, these words barely register because they're so overused they're basically rendered meaningless. By culling hollow words like these from your vocabulary, you're forced to use fresher language that sparks in readers' minds and replaces fuzzy language with more specific words to convey your point. Think for a moment about what facts prompt the use of adjectives such as "innovative," "leading," or "unique." Detailing a reason for the use of these adjectives is much more likely to effectively communicate the point and stick in readers' minds.
4. Revise more times than you think you should. Whether you're a Nobel-prize-winning author penning her latest novel or a mid-level manager composing a business proposal, the first draft of everything you write is garbage, as many a writer, from Hemingway to Anne Lamott, has observed. Smooth, effortless writing rarely starts that way and only arrives in its final polished state after countless revisions. Once you finish a draft, look at it first on a macro level for structure and purpose, and then on the micro level for precise language, until every word conveys your message. Then pass it off to a trusted reader who can tell you whether you hit your mark. Then revise again. Certainly time management comes into play and you shouldn't spend a month composing the perfect email to request a day off. But before you click the send button on a hastily typed email, give it one more look. What words could you cut? How could your meaning be clearer?
5. Proofread. When you complete the final draft, read through it one more time looking only for missing or misplaced punctuation, misspellings, weird spacing or formatting, and other typos. Nothing can kill your credibility faster than a typo. If you need to brush up on your grammar, grab a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style -- it explains the rules of writing with plenty of examples, and the advice within remains the high water mark for concise, clear writing.
Writing, like anything, takes years to master. But by focusing more consciously on what you're reading and what you're writing -- at the level of the entire document, the paragraph, the sentence, and the word -- you can become more conscious of the effects your writing has and deploy them with authority.
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