Communication Skills: Writing
Communication Skills: Writing
The Recruitment and Employment Commission (REC) says that around half of all CVs received by recruitment consultants contain spelling or grammatical errors.
Candidates aged between 21 and 25 are most likely to make these mistakes and graduates in this age group are, surprisingly, twice as likely to make mistakes as those who did not go on to university.
Even something as basic as the name of an employer, or an individual recruiter, is often spelled incorrectly. The former Graduate Recruitment Manager at City law firm Mayer Brown found that 20% of applicants got the firm’s name wrong.
Your covering letter is an important part of your job application, as it demonstrates your writing style better than your CV (which is usually more brief and factual).
Written Communication involves expressing yourself clearly, using language with precision; constructing a logical argument; note taking, editing and summarising; and writing reports.
There are three main elements to written communication
- structure (the way the content is laid out)
- style (the way it is written)
- content (what you are writing about)
Structure and layout can be relatively quickly learnt but learning how to write good quality content takes much longer.
A good structure will help you to express yourself more clearly, whether in a dissertation, an essay, a job application letter or a CV.
The following tactics may help you to structure your writing:
- Clarify your thoughts and the purpose of your communication before you start writing. In business communications, clarity is more important than style.
- Identify the key points, facts and themes
- Decide on a logical order for what you have to say
- Compose a strong introduction and ending. The first will make an immediate and positive impression on the reader; the second will remain in their mind after they have finished reading
- Use short paragraphs and sentences rather than long, rambling ones. Keep to one idea per paragraph and put your point in the first line, then add the supporting information.
- Help key points to stand out by the use of headings, sub-headings and bullet points. This will allow your reader to quickly scan your message for the main points.
Writing in a style appropriate to the audience
“A single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half.”
A study by the University of Hertfordshire on over 500 companies found that poor spelling or grammar alienated 77% of the companies surveyed.
All good communicators should think about their readers:
- How much information and detail will they need?
- Should you use specialist terms or should you “translate” these to make yourself understood by a generalist reader?
- How formal or informal should your writing be?
- A scientific paper aimed at an audience of non-scientists would have to be written in simpler and less technical language.
- A report in the Financial Times would be written in a very different style from one covering the same issue in the Sun
- A lawyer giving advice to a client would not go into the same amount of details as to legal precedents and arguments as a law student would when writing an academic essay.
- Emails sent with job applications should be treated more formally than emails to friends and family!
The four basic premises of writing are clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity. William Zinsser
Look at a piece of writing you have had to do (i.e. an essay, report or job application) and check it against the following points. Then use the following checklist as guidelines for an important piece of work you have to do in the future:
Structure (the way the content is laid out)
- Is the layout clear and easy to follow?
- Do headings stand out (e.g. are they in a larger font size)?
- Is the information arranged in a logical sequence with a beginning (introduction), middle, and end (conclusion)?
- Does the introduction clearly state the subject and purpose?
- Does it briefly summarise the content?
Style (the way it is written)
- Does it look neat, and elegant?
- Is it concise, with an exact use of words and economy of style?
“If in doubt, cut it out!”. Learn to be laconic!
For example instead of saying forward planning, just say planning – there is no such thing as backward planning!
- Is is simple, direct and lucid?
For example a bureaucrat would write:
Political organisation administered directly via the populace, intended for the employment of the general community, on behalf of each and every one of the citizens of the nation.
Abraham Lincoln wrote:
Government of the people, by the people, for the people.
- Are paragraphs too long?
Paragraphs of less than 10 lines are easier to read.
- Is a blank line left between paragraphs to aid clarity?
- Are sentences too long? A sentence should contain just one idea.
- Sentences with more than 30 words should normally be split.
- Is the first sentence interesting/ Does it draw the reader in?
- Have you avoided unnecessary jargon?
- Is the style suitable for the intended audience?
A scientific report aimed at an audience of non-scientists would have to be written in simpler and more jargon free language.
- Are bulleted lists used where appropriate?
- Have you used short, concrete, familiar words rather than long, obscure, complex words?
- Use the active words where possible rather than the passive voice? “It is recommended ….” should be replaced by “We recommend” as this is simpler and more direct
- Have you kept wordy phrases to a minimum?
- Have you avoided repetition?
- The Plain English Campaign recommends
sans serif fonts (e.g. Arial, Verdana) as clearer and easier to read than
serif fonts (e.g. Times New Roman)
Content (what you are writing about)
- Have you carefully checked the spelling and punctuation?
- Have you thought through in advance what you want to say?
- Have you a clear objective?
- Have you listed the essential points you wish to make?
- Have you made these points clearly?
- Have you developed your argument in a logical way?
- Have you allowed detail to obscure the main issues?
- Is the content positive and constructive?
- Have you shown an interest in the reader by writing with warmth, sensitivity and friendliness?
- Have you edited it through several revisions, honing the text until it is just right?
- Have you left it overnight if possible: your mind will assimilate it better and you will come back with a fresh view.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive voice (e.g. “Bones are liked by dogs”) where you can use the active voice (“Dogs like bones”).
- Never use jargon if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
Lastly, a great quote to guide you!
“Cut every page you write by one third”. Hillary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall