Good writing skills are essential now that hybrid working has made us more dependent on emails, but are our lightning-fast texting skills getting in the way? If you’ve ever pinged a quick update to accounts with kisses under your name, or hastily scribbled an angry line to HR – and found it still on the draft you sent, or mailed a secret about X…to X, then keep reading.
The government of New Zealand has just passed a plain language law, banishing jargon and complex language from its bureaucracy. It’s hoped that clearer official documents will benefit people who speak English as a second language, those with disabilities, and people with lower levels of education.
For the rest of us, there’s autocorrect, weaponising smartphones since 2007. It might not get rid of jargon but autocorrect does sometimes save us from ourselves, usually. There are times, however, when letting artificial intelligence do our thinking for us can be risky. A quick look online for epic autocorrect fails had me crying with laughter in seconds, though since most aren’t safe for work they’re hard to share here. Let’s just say if you’re emailing your boss, be careful!
Sending an email too early, before you’ve had a chance to really embarrass yourself, can be awkward too. ‘Good morning Neil’ is perfectly fine – unless it’s not accompanied by anything else, in which case it looks like you’re just closely watching Neil. Using ‘xxx’ instead of a final figure, or a filler in place of someone’s name, can be dangerous. If you forget to correct it, you could easily end up sending your carefully crafted note to ‘Professor whats his nuts’, as one student did.
What’s the best approach to writing a work email?
There are a few simple rules for writing an email at work. Unlike a conversation, emails immediately reveal how long they go on for. Everyone likes brevity. Be clear, be polite, be done.
- Be clear. In the absence of body language, other people can rely only on the words you give them. Get to the point quickly, while remaining diplomatic. Best to be yourself. Dusty business-speak, mangled sentences that stretch on ‘til dawn, jargon, and WhatsApp shortcuts (c u l8tr, etc), can give an impression that you might not want to give.
- Be polite. It’s important to set the right tone. You’re committing your thoughts to writing, so it pays to get them right. Assumptions, sarcasm or an edgy manner can lead to trouble. Assume others only have best intentions and write to them on that basis. That way, any sense of grievance or frustration will be softened. Is it possible you may have misunderstood something?
- Be done. How do you finish an email to colleagues? Best wishes (bit formal), thanks (bit meetingy), just your name (bit blunt maybe)? Recently, we’ve seen ‘be safe’, and ‘enjoy the coming weekend’ – tricky perhaps when using it on a Monday morning.There’s also ‘MT’ (best read as ‘many thanks’, rather than a reference to Montana), and ‘regards’ – always a faithful fallback.
Expressing your thoughts in words isn’t an easy process. Common problems include getting stuck, or leaving the best ‘til last – where your final sentence finally captures what you’ve been trying to say. By moving it higher up, you’ll get to the point more quickly.
Protect your reputation (your personal brand) by consistently writing in a spirit of positive, considerate clarity. A little empathy goes a long way. For example, ending an email on nothing more than your signature feels a little cold. Adding your name after your final sentence is the equivalent of looking someone in the eye and giving them a brief smile.
Quick tips for business writing
- Capital letters – it’s easy to feel that capital letters lend gravitas. But used in the Wrong Place (as here), they’re a transparent effort to claim authority. They can look a little lame. It’s the same as resorting to business-speak, just more shouty. In the example above, they’re also incorrect. Names start with capital letters, so too expressions with a single letter such as U-turn, but not much else. These days, style guides even prefer lower case for things that might give us pause for thought – as in second world war for example, now apparently a war without a name.
- Commas – sometimes commas break out like a rash across the face of well-crafted prose. Although they’re best used with restraint, it helps to add a comma before the final ‘and’ in lists, (known as an Oxford comma). Compare: ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Donald Trump, and Rihanna’ with ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Donald Trump and Rihanna’ (…unlikely to say the least).
- Double-check – Be certain of what you’re saying before you send it. It might be time-consuming to read everything twice but it’s without doubt the best way of sparing your blushes.
- Full stops – language is fluid, for example the full stop/period is suffering a slow death due to our texting style. Already, they have fallen from abbreviations, (no need to use them any more in mph, 9am, IMF), though their absence from the end of a sentence in an email still prompts an eyebrow-raising pang of concern in most people.
- Humour – best avoided (in work emails, at least).
- Rapport – our trainer Sara Hollamby says “I dislike ‘I hope you’re well’ (even worse, I hope your well). I say, be more creative with how you start, or leave your ‘rapport building’ to the end, then they can read if they have time, or not.”
- Spelling – counts for much and takes little effort to correct. Automated spellchecks that underline errors in red are worth paying attention to. If yours isn’t set up, for example on an email platform, take a moment to adjust your preferences, or else check your text in Word etc.
How to write with impact
Create impact by writing with clarity and authenticity. Be honest and up front with the facts, and think about emotion. Will your readers regard your message as uplifting, or difficult, purposeful maybe? The tone of your writing will influence your phrasing, helping your reader grasp the impact of what you have to say. For example, a difficult message might be easier for readers to accept if it includes a little optimism rather than being limited to a simple transactional update.
Good writing can lay essential groundwork for face-to-face meetings, carrying a reader from one side of the argument to the other before they get to the end of the sentence. It can demonstrate a world of expertise within the space of a few short lines, and it can inspire the will to grasp at objectives that might otherwise seem out of reach. To write with impact, it helps to bear in mind a few pointers:
- Know what you want to say. What’s the message you want to convey?
- What emotional response are you aiming for, perhaps inspiration, or resilience?
- Imagine the ending. Where do you need to get to?
- How will you get there? Although the ending might be ‘basically we’re going in a good direction’, the middle might need to be ‘there will be a few bumps along the way’.
- With these things in mind, think about the beginning. What’s the best way to ease people in?
Restrictions to writing
Business leaders with rigid beliefs on punctuation and grammar might need to accept that language evolves over time. Our trainer Andrew Day says: “When training lawyers in the correct use of punctuation and grammar, I’ve often found that they’ve been ‘corrected’ by senior managers for using English in a way that is perfectly in line with educated modern usage. Many of the ‘rules’ that they are supposed to have broken are actually the misconceptions of snobs: split infinitives, for example are, and always have been, fine. This creates confusion and resentment. The trainee lawyers learn slowly and incompletely because they don’t have confidence in what they’re being told.”
Rather than arbitrary interpretations of the rules, general principles are perhaps more helpful. In a training course on business writing, personalised face-to-face sessions help to iron out wrinkles. For a speedier alternative, try an online course. In the end, your writing is your personal expression of your thoughts, your emails are representative of you. It’s best to write only what you would say in the room – you might end up having to do just that, especially after a missive to professor whats his nuts.