“Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.” - William Zinsser
We write a lot at work. We write proposals for our customers, documentation for our peers, email everywhere, and blog posts to the world. It’s important that we master the principles of good writing for effective written communication.
Recommended reading: On Writing Well (pdf) by William Zinsser is a classic book on understanding the purpose and process of writing. It is short and to the point, funny, and full of tips and inspiration.
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
The main purpose of writing, at least in the context of work, is to communicate. The main goal, therefore, should be clarity. One of the easiest mistakes to make, especially with technical communication, is to write overly long and jargon-filled statements that sound smart but aren’t actually clear. Re-read your writing from the point of view of the person your message is intended for.
Avoid passive voice
Passive voice is a common trap, especially with technical and scientific writing. It weakens the sentence and inverts the subject/verb relationship. Try to use active voice as much as possible, with the subject acting upon the verb, rather than being acted upon.
Passive: The application was deployed by Robert.
Active: Robert deployed the application.
“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
Get to the point quickly and without flourishes. If you’re writing a lot of words for a topic, it probably means there isn’t enough meat in the content and you’re dancing around it to fill space. This is especially problematic with proposals, where we feel compelled to hit an arbitrary page limit.
“Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”
If you can use a shorter word, do so. Review your sentences and see if there are excess adjectives or adverbs, or if you can re-phrase to be shorter.
“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”
There is a person on the other side of our communications. Just like we would respect them in a conversation, we should respect their time and intellect when writing to them. We aren’t robots generating jargon, we’re humans with something to say.
Hemingway is an app that analyzes your writing and gives pointers. Paste your content in and you can see highlighted indicators for passive voice, long words, unnecessary adverbs, and readability. It even uses the Automated Readability Index to estimate US grade level of the text.