It's easy to complain about the state of business writing in general. Not only does teaching employees how to express themselves clearly cost companies billions each year (as my Inc.com colleague Kaleigh Moore recently reported) but most of us have personally experienced -- and complained about -- painfully confused and jargon-filled memos, reports, and emails.
But while it's easy to spot that other people are terrible writers, it's often harder to see that our own writing could use some improvement. Just like when it comes to driving and IQ, the vast majority of us believe our writing abilities are above average, even though that's obviously a statistical impossibility.
And it's not just me saying that. A recent survey shows that, when it comes to writing ability, on a scale of one to ten most of us give ourselves a near 7, while rating everyone else a much more modest 5.4. Overconfidence in our writing is clearly rife.
How to ensure your writing is as good as you think it is
So what should you do about this reality? Continuing along blissfully unaware of the limitations of your writing sounds like the most pleasant option, but a whole host of top business leaders argue that skill behind a keyboard (or with - gasp! - an actual pen) is essential for getting ahead professionally. Facing facts and confronting your writing mistakes and stylistic bad habits isn't fun, but it's necessary.
To do that, Josh Bernoff, author of the new book Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean, recently offered four simple and actionable suggestions on the HBR blogs. Here they are in his words:
- Challenge yourself to be more concise. Whether you're writing an email or a report, ask yourself if you've made it too long, failing to get to the point quickly enough. If you chopped out a sentence or two -- or eight -- would the reader notice it was missing?
- Identify your bad habits. Learn to recognize jargon, passive constructions ("something must be done!"), and imprecise language as bad habits that make it harder for others to get the meaning of what you're saying.
- Pair up with another writer. People tend to have complementary problems: Maybe you write too long, while your colleague has problems organizing ideas. The job of an editor or a peer reviewer is to show you what you cannot see. That's why two flawed writers can make each other better.
- Build disciplined feedback into writing processes. When good writers are whipsawed by contradictory reviews, it leads to bad results. With sufficient notice and carefully organized review cycles, you can fix problems and keep your writing coherent.
But of course, Bernoff is far from the only expert offering tips on how to improve your writing. There is tons of great advice out there, from waiting awhile to proofread (and doing it using an actual printed page) to imitating the writing techniques of some of history's best writers. Avoiding these common grammar and usage errors will probably help too.
When's the last time you did anything practical to polish up your writing skills?