Better writing is better work. Especially if you are a leader.
Your team does more work in writing these days than ever before. Emails fly through the office. Texts ding all day. Collaboration tools stream our projects.
You probably do more writing too, overseeing the primary documents that formalize your visions, plans, proposals, and agreements.
As the volume becomes overwhelming for everyone, good writing chops can help you pierce through what can be a chaotic environment, especially with so much more remote work happening now.
That’s why writing is a key leadership skill.
But writing skills can be tricky to hone. Because good writing tips are probably different than what you might think.
Most people think good writing means being fancy, using big words and academic tones. Smart leaders know that good writing is clear and simple.
That’s what these tips are aimed at—helping you improve your writing in a way that improves your leadership.
Use these tips to quickly take your writing to the next level and improve your results.
1. Write to your audience
Before you begin, think about who you are writing to and run through some basic questions to estimate their perspective.
What do they know about this topic already? How can you concisely remind them of that? What new information do they need to know? What concerns or questions will they have and how can you address those most directly? Who do they need to convey a summary to? How can you help them do that?
Getting in the reader’s shoes for a minute will help get the perspective you need to shape what you are going to say.
I didn’t know to do this for a long time, and it cost me. Because my writing would be good in a technical sense, but it wasn’t easy for people to respond to or for them to help me advance the issue. Once I learned to consider their perspective more fully, everything became easier because I would bake in a lot of things that would make it much easier for them to help me out.
2. Keep it simple
Here’s another mistake I used to make often. I thought that good business writing was more like academic writing. I thought that I had to demonstrate a certain command of language. And I thought it was best to show off deep knowledge of the topic at hand by using all the specific terms and turns of phrase that made it clever and interesting.
But I’ve had far more success by using simple language. Simple language is clearer and easier for readers to follow.
Maybe the best shortcut I’ve found here is to focus on the benefits of the idea rather than its features. Just like in sales. I don’t really want to know exactly how the car processes fuel. I want to know the gas mileage.
If there is some extra benefit that is achieved in a special way, I only need to know the gist of it. I don’t need the jargon about how “regenerative braking takes energy created during braking and harnesses it so the energy can be used for other purposes.” I probably just want to know that it’s a hybrid car, at least at the first pass.
3. Present in layers
Details are best revealed in layers. This is the magic of the executive overview. And also why it’s so hard to write a good one. Unless you write it last.
To present well in layers of detail, you need to do it in a grass roots sort of way. It’s only through understanding the details well that you can craft a great summary of them.
But if you throw a bunch of details at the reader, it will overwhelm them. Instead, you need to take them through a few rounds, revealing important details as they become important to the narrative thread. And maybe share the nitty gritty at the end (or in an appendix) for those who are interested.
The way you do this leads us to the next point.
4. Organize with intent
Your writing needs to be easy to use. A big part of that is how you lay it out for the reader.
This is true for that big report you have to write. But it’s also true for your emails and more informal write ups.
You can draft your write up any way you like to get started. But your first edit should be a reflection on how to structure it for the reader.
What’s the key point to mention right up front? How can you walk them through a logical progression of thoughts? Where does this need to land to bring the message home? And what one thing are you asking them to do? (You are always asking for exactly one thing. Being clear on that is a big part of organizing your message well.)
If you can organize well, your message will be far more effective and useful. Word choice and grammar and all the little things can be nice tweaks. But organize first.
It may even be easier for you to organize first with an outline and then fill in your draft. If you take that approach, don’t be afraid to restructure it later. Often you will find the best structure only after you have completely thought everything through that you want to say.
5. Edit on paper
Your mileage may vary, but for some reason my best editing happens on paper. There is something about a hard copy that makes it easier for me to spot mistakes and to see opportunities for improvement.
You may want to try this out, even if for a simple email message. If you don’t want to use paper, try sending the email or document to your phone and looking it over. That can have the same effect.
6. Make it shorter
Whatever you wrote can probably be shortened. And shortening it will probably make it better.
Many times I notice that I write up a sort of preamble to things that is mostly unnecessary. It helps me to get going on the writing but it often doesn’t really help the reader. We are both better off if I just delete most of it.
Another thing I will do is write long sentences that can be shortened. Or I will repeat ideas by saying the same thing in different ways. Sometimes I will write a paragraph where a sentence will do.
In all of these cases, I go back and try to shorten things up. It helps tighten the focus of the message, which helps the reader. And it helps me to get my message across more clearly and directly.
Like many workers, you may spend a third of your workday or more reading and responding to emails. It’s how a lot of work gets done these days.
Unfortunately, poorly written messages lead to a lot of confusion, frustration, and misunderstandings. All of that needs to be cleared up one way or another, often with an additional flurry of emails.
The same is true for reports and communication that happens on collaboration tools or social media.
You can be a whole lot more effective by improving your writing skills. If your messages are clear and compelling, you will be a whole lot more efficient. So will everyone working with you.
Better writing leads to better productivity. And it helps you to stand out as a better leader.
Some simple steps can help you improve your writing immediately.
Take some time to consider the audience for each message you compose. That will help you appreciate their perspective and prepare a better message.
Keep things simple. Fancy may have gotten you better grades in academia, but it only mucks up the works at work.
Present long or detailed messages in layers. Provide a high level view as an executive summary and then layer in details as appropriate as you build out your message. Use an appendix if you need to.
Organize your message carefully. This is more important than tweaking small things.
Try editing on paper to see if it helps you catch things you might not catch on the screen.
Finally, go back and shorten your message one more time whenever possible.
None of this is hard. It just takes a little time and effort. And it can make your writing—and your ability to lead—more effective.