Why You Need to be a Writer — and How to Improve Your Writing Skills
If you’re a professional today, you need to be a writer! You have to improve your writing skills to advance your career. Don’t believe me? Did you know that an estimated 269 billion emails are sent every day? And the world sends 18.7 billion texts every day. The average professional sends 40 emails a day. Written communication is frequent, and the volume is only growing. In 2000, only 12 billion emails were sent per day. That’s a 22x increase in email traffic over the last 17 years.
If you’re a professional, and don’t think writing is important — think again. We all write. Every day, constantly. Just look at the metrics! Maybe it’s just a text to your co-worker, or a short caption on an Instagram post. It could be a quick Slack message to your teammate. Or maybe the stakes are higher — you send an important email to your boss, or contact a recruiter about a job posting. You’re writing, and you need to be writing effectively!
I always wanted to be a writer, and I used to chuckle about the way that my career unfolded. Instead of writing books, I ended up getting a PhD in Economics and becoming a consultant in a STEM field. Would I regret giving up my dream of writing for a living? Many years into my professional career, I had lightbulb moment. I am a writer. Writing is absolutely critical to my professional success. You might think that mathematical knowledge or programming skills would be the keys to advancement in a technical field. Those skills are just the price of entry. You simply won’t get hired without baseline technical abilities. What will set you apart is your ability to communicate. You must be able to convey technical concepts to a variety of audiences. Those audiences may not understand equations, or elegant programming. But they all understand words. To connect with colleagues and clients of different backgrounds, you must learn to distill complicated concepts in a way that someone with a different background can understand. The written word is one of your most important tools as a professional. Are you using that tool to the best of your ability?
What should you consider when writing?
Words evoke feelings
Whether you like it or not, words make people feel a certain way. If you’re used to writing short replies in emails, texts or chat messages, you should be aware that others might misread your tone. It’s very hard to convey context and tone in the written word, but you have the opportunity to use word choice to create the proper context. Here’s an example:
#1: “When will I have the Owens report?” vs #2: “Can you please let me know when to expect the Owens report?”
I’ll admit it — #2 has a few more words. But how did you feel when you read #1? I hear a grumpy, overbearing manager in that one. Someone else might read it differently. To me, #2 sounds more cheerful and relaxed. These conclusions might be completely wrong — but it’s difficult to read the tone of a terse statement like #1. If you want to be clear about your intent, carefully choose your words.
Words can translate difficult concepts
Equations are meaningless to many people. Ditto computer code. But words, we can all understand. Since words are a common language, they are critically important for technical people to translate concepts to a range of audiences. Business decision-makers may not understand the ins and outs of the code written or the machine learning technique used. Yet they have to rely on these tools to make business decisions. That is why the analytical and technical professional must be able to clearly translate their work into words.
Words can create a story
If you presented your readers with a collection of numbers or graphs, some of them would probably give up immediately and move on to the next email. The more tenacious readers would look through the email, and make up their own story to string together those graphs or numbers. Is that what you want them to do? You know the content best. You know what it means. You know what’s important and unimportant. You must tell them the story. You simply cannot do that without words. Unless a graph is extremely simple, your reader will come to a conclusion that may not be the one you want them to reach. Don’t leave your results open to interpretation. Use words to lead the reader along the right path.
How can you improve your writing skills?
If you don’t feel that you’re a good writer, there’s a super easy way to refine your skills — read more! Books are great, and fun. In this case, it really doesn’t matter what genre you’re reading, as long as you choose something with high-quality writing. If you aren’t inclined to read books, try articles by well-respected outlets like The Economist, Harvard Business Review and The New York Times. This will help you get a sense of different writing styles. Focus on writing styles that appeal to you and suit your industry and audience.
I edit constantly. If I’m sending an important, complicated or lengthy email I usually do 3–4 rounds of my own revisions, plus 2–3 rounds of revisions with a colleague. I do not send until the email has been read at least 5 times and refined. This isn’t just about grammar or punctuation. It’s about word choice, clarifying points and removing non-critical information. This is key! Edit yourself. If a piece of information isn’t relevant to your main point, remove it. I find that it can be really hard for a technically-inclined person to do this. If the information is interesting but tertiary, it’s tempting to include it. Don’t do that! Be brutal with yourself and ask the same question about every sentence: “How is this contributing to my message?”
Follow the path
The reader needs to make a conclusion at the end of your email. Don’t ask them to make more than one conclusion. Keep it simple. Set the stage for your reader. Make sure they have the proper context, know the relevant facts and can relate the facts in a clear way. Lead them down the path you want them to follow. Remember — you saw all of the details and subconsciously focused on the most relevant. You reached a conclusion based on the results you saw and your own knowledge and experience. Trust that process and surface that process to the people reading your content.
Practice makes better
Remember: you’re a writer, and your words invoke a feeling and tell a story. Struggling? Visit me at ParentLightly.com for contact info and career tips. I’m always happy to provide thoughts, feedback or even editing! I once edited a letter from my school district’s superintendent with red pen and sent it back. I was an obnoxious high schooler. But anyway, I promise to be nice to you all. Don’t hesitate to reach out!