Communication skills are more important than ever, but what if your grammar doesn't quite make the grade?
Fifty years ago, you would've walked over to your coworker's desk or called up to the second floor to ask a question. Now, whether your coworkers are in the next cube or half a world away, it's standard practice to email, instant message, or text them.
This shift in basic communication has made writing skills crucial to being listened to.
An increasing number of employees are "working with people they have never met and communicating with them largely through email," Will Ellet, adjunct professor of writing at Brandeis International Business School, told CNBC.
No matter what format your written communication takes, it needs to be clear and concise. Misunderstandings can lead to costly mistakes. Given that the average professional sends and receives more than100 emails a day, no one has time to read rambling messages that don't get to the point quickly.
We could all use a little refresher on our business writing skills. And thanks to a wealth of free classes and resources online, we can improve our grammar and writing from the comfort of our own desk chairs -- without spending a dime.
To get you started, we've put together a list of tips for quickly improving your written communication skills. Check 'em out. (And if you're looking for more, here's an excellent list of helpful websites and tools that address common grammar questions and errors.)
How to Become a Better Writer
- Develop a daily writing habit.
- Try to read every day.
- Capitalize when you're supposed to.
- Avoid using exclamation points.
- Always think about your audience.
- Cut the filler phrases and buzzwords.
- Sign up for a free writing course online.
- Use writing templates.
- Make sure you address people correctly.
- Study commonly misused words and phrases.
- Drop the word 'very' from your vocabulary.
- Read your writing out loud.
- Ask for feedback from your peers.
1. Develop a daily writing habit.
Practice makes perfect, so set aside just 10 or 15 minutes each day to free-write. Free writing is a healthy daily habit that allows you to get your thoughts down on paper (or computer) without worrying about outlining or proofreading your ideas. Think of it like a journal, but focus your daily entry on personal growth or a subject in which you want to become -- or be seen as -- an expert.
2. Try to read every day.
In addition to writing each day, a daily reading habit is also crucial to increasing your vocabulary and expanding your writing repertoire.
Be selective about your reading choices, though. While reading in general does help you take on new points of view, the content you're reading can have the biggest impact on what you get out of it. According to a study by the University of Florida, reading academic journals and literary fiction can actually make you capable of more complex writing projects than reading simple, curated, or pop-culture web content.
So, pack a novel alongside your lunch or peruse a magazine. Even industry blogs can be a great source of quality writing (if we do say so ourselves).
3. Capitalize when you're supposed to.
Notice how the University of Florida published that study referenced in the previous tip. And notice how the "University of Florida" is capitalized.
It might seem pedantic to school you on basic rules of grammar, but it's not always clear what deserves to be capitalized and what doesn't. Here are two types of writing you should always examine closely when uppercasing your words:
- Proper nouns. If it's an official name of a person, city, company, product, book, publication, country, continent, government job title, or school (we're likely missing some on this list), capitalize it. These words refer to specific people, places, or things, and should be capitalized to reflect it.
- Title case. Whenever you're titling a new story, book, article, or even a new section of an article, you'll need capitalizations to distinguish it. This means email subject lines, blog post headlines, and even report titles should be capitalized. Check out the Associated Press Stylebook to learn a popular way of doing so.
4. Avoid using exclamation points.
Often, we rely on exclamation points too heavily as a crutch.
"Don't ask punctuation to do a word's job," warns Beth Dunn, chief writer and editor on HubSpot's product team. "It dilutes your message." Instead, she suggests working on making our words convey more precisely what you want to say. When in doubt about whether to use an exclamation point, consult this flowchart.
5. Always think about your audience.
You can be casual with your coworkers and peers, but when communicating with management or clients, it's a good idea to write using more formal grammar.
Keep in mind that "formal" doesn't necessarily mean stilted or old-fashioned. Rather, it asks that you use contractions sparingly ("it is" instead of "it's"), pick your greeting words carefully ("hello" and "hi" are more formal than "hey"), and choose your humor wisely.
It's much harder to convey tone in the form of words than it is in person -- the types of formality described above are how you can compensate for this and ensure your audience doesn't feel disrespected.
6. Cut the filler phrases and buzzwords.
Wordy phrases such as "due to the fact that” should be swapped out for their simpler, more straightforward synonyms. (In this case, "because” gets the job done.)
Some buzzwords may be trendy, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're effective in communicating ideas clearly. Remove them from your business communication unless you're sure that everyone understands exactly what "synergy” means.
7. Sign up for a free writing course online.
You'd be surprised what you can learn from a free online writing course. Massively open online courses (MOOCs) are only multiplying, and you can find free courses offered by Coursera, Udemy, and edX, as well as universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.
8. Use writing templates.
Templates can save you some serious time and effort. If you have to send out similar letters or memos on a regular basis, create a template with customizable fields. You can always personalize your communication with a sentence or two.
Here are 78 free content creation templates for ebooks, press releases, SlideShares, infographics, and more to help you get started.
9. Make sure you address people correctly.
Avoid accidentally insulting someone by triple-checking names, gender, personal pronouns, and titles.
Dustin Wax of Lifehack writes, "If you're not positive about the spelling of someone's name, their job title (and what it means), or their gender, either a) check with someone who does know (like their assistant), or b) in the case of gender, use gender-neutral language.”
10. Study commonly misused words and phrases.
And never get them wrong.
It is "peek," "peak," or "pique"? Which one is correct: "first-come, first-served" or "first-come, first-serve"? There are a lot of commonly misused words and phrases out there that you should know.
For example, what's the difference between "that" and "which"? In short, "that" introduces essential information, meaning the stuff that would turn your sentence into nonsense if you took it out. It does not get a comma. On the other hand, "which" introduces non-essential information and is preceded by a comma. (For an in-depth explanation, read this post from Grammar Girl.)
When in doubt, do a quick Google search. It's worth it.
11. Drop the word 'very' from your vocabulary.
Florence King once wrote, "'Very' is the most useless word in the English language and can always come out. More than useless, it is treacherous because it invariably weakens what it is intended to strengthen."
You'd be amazed at the difference removing the word "very" makes in your writing. Here are a few examples:
- The software was built by a very passionate group of engineers.
- I'm very excited to get started on our next project.
- The data that the marketing team received was very indicative of the website traffic from last month.
In all three sentences above, "very" dilutes the strength of the word that comes after it. Now read each sentence without "very." Don't they sound so much better?
If you want your writing to speak volumes to your audience, don't add "very" -- add a better adjective. Once you attach "very" to it, you're giving the adjective a grade that it doesn't need.
12. Read your writing out loud.
Before you send anything important, read through it out loud quickly. It may seem a little strange, but reading your writing out loud is one of the most effective ways to catch typos, grammar errors, and awkward phrasing.
13. Ask for feedback from your peers.
This is perhaps the most important tip of all for becoming a better writer. If you read your own writing enough times, it suddenly becomes just a wall of words, playing in your head with no real meaning. The best way to find out how your writing will hit the ears of your readers is to have someone else read it.
Getting your peers and colleagues to provide you with feedback on your writing gives you a window into how other people -- who all have different experiences and ways of interpreting things -- perceive your ideas. For example, a paragraph you thought was crystal clear might totally confuse your direct coworker. The more often you take this criticism, the more capable you'll be to reinforce your voice and identify with your audience.
These self-paced, self-study tips will help you improve your writing and communication skills in no time.