Knowing why you're writing something sounds so obviously fundamental that most writers don't even consider it. When's the last time you paused before composing an email to ask "What is the purpose of this email?"
When you write anything for work -- an email, instant message or internal report -- you have a purpose in mind. You want to move the recipient to some action, educate your coworkers about something or maybe just show off your good work.
With digital communication dominating workplaces, writing is an important tool for exerting influence and achieving goals. But this type of communication comes with challenges.
"Information overload and the pace of our digital lives have [led to short attention spans]," communication theorist and coach Nick Morgan told Harvard Business Review last year. "[Yet] it's more important than ever to be able to command influence, because of the increased pressure on getting results."
Before hitting "send" or "share" on anything, get in the habit of pausing to ask, "Does this piece of writing achieve its purpose?" to avoid miscommunication and inefficiencies.
Here are two questions to help you understand the purpose of what you write and optimize it to achieve your goals:
1. What will this do for you?
Start with your goal. Why did you write this email, message or report? What do you want to happen after someone reads it? You know you want to exert some influence over the reader; set your intention by defining it before writing.
Everything you include in your piece of writing should support this core purpose. Don't waste words (that people likely won't read) on meandering ideas and extraneous information.
When reviewing what you've written -- and, please, do this before ever putting it in front of someone else -- put yourself in the reader's shoes. Will they understand what you're trying to achieve?
For example, our writers at The Penny Hoarder often post to our community seeking input on stories. For a hypothetical story about ways to get out of credit card debt, a writer might post one of several queries:
Have you paid off credit card debt in the past year? How?
I'm writing a story to help people pay off lots of credit card debt fast. Have you paid off credit card debt? If so, how?
Have you found any techniques particularly helpful in paying off credit card debt I could include in an upcoming story? Based on your experience, what would you recommend to someone with more than $10,000 in debt who wants to pay it off this year?
The third option will likely get the writer the most useful responses, because it's clear about what they want to achieve through this exchange. The second seems to have more detail than the first, but it isn't as likely as the third to achieve its purpose, because the intention isn't clear.
Understanding that purpose and writing to achieve it saves everyone time and contributes to the best content in the end.
2. What's in it for the reader?
Any persuasive writing -- i.e. most writing you do at work -- rests on a simple foundation: the audience. If you can't appeal to your reader, no composition skill or subject matter expertise means a thing.
To do this, understand your reader's goals and how your purpose fits in.
"Anticipate any questions that may be asked and prepare to address the benefits of the topic to key stakeholders because they will make the ultimate decision," Rick Gibbs writes at Forbes about influencing coworkers.
In the example above, the goals of readers might be to get quoted in a story, to contribute to the company's mission of helping people stress less about money or simply to have their good ideas heard. (Don't underestimate the power of that last one.)
In other situations, the reader's goal is often more blatant and could be in conflict with yours. You might want to add a position to your staff while your COO wants to reduce personnel costs. Consider why they set this goal and how yours relates to it. How can your piece of writing address both needs and influence the reader -- not by persuading them to change their goal, but by demonstrating that your goal can help them achieve theirs?
When you review your writing before sending, ask yourself whether your writing helps the reader understand what's in it for them.
In the examples above, option one reveals nothing about how this request will affect the reader. Option two gets a little closer, making it clear this ask is for a story, but the tone is skewed to what the writer needs. Option three explains how the ask affects the reader and how it fits into a shared mission.