Your high school English teacher was right—your ability to express yourself via the written word matters. As a design professional, a strong command of the language can improve your communication and help you sell your ideas. Solid writing skills also add to your professionalism and credibility. You don’t have to be a natural-born author to write with confidence. It’s a talent that can be learned, and once you’ve improved your skill level in this area, you’ll find the advantages of being a good writer extend to just about every aspect of your professional life. Your emails will become more polished and your presentations more compelling.
Following are some tips to help you write like a pro:
• Know the basics. Do periods go inside or outside of quotes? (With rare exception, inside.) When should you use the word "affect" versus "effect"? ("Affect" is a verb; "effect" is a noun.) Do you capitalize the first word following a colon? (Only when it begins a complete sentence.)
If, like many people, you’re unsure of the answers to grammatical and punctuation questions such as these, invest in a grammar and usage book, and reference it often. The "Associated Press Stylebook" is a good choice. It provides quick and easy tips on punctuation, as well as a list of commonly confused words/phrases in alphabetical order. (Keep in mind, however, that these are the style guidelines used by "The Associated Press," and while generally helpful, they may differ from the preferred style for other organizations.) Strunk & White’s "The Elements of Style" is another valuable resource. The book explains common grammar and usage problems in simple terms. Finally, make sure you have an up-to-date dictionary and thesaurus on hand, or try the Merriam-Webster Web site at www.m-w.com to access online reference guides.
• Less is more. Some people believe using long sentences containing big words will distinguish them as literary geniuses. While this strategy may have worked for Henry James, the best business writers keep their communications simple and succinct. Use "vocabulary" words only when they express your point more accurately than simple language, and avoid long, convoluted sentence structures.
Before sending out an important document, review it line by line to see if any words can be omitted without losing clarity or altering your message. For example, the sentence, "I was employed for four years with the company XYZ Design before deciding to join the firm Jones Communications, where I currently am working" could be changed to, "I worked four years for XYZ Design before joining my current firm, Jones Communications."
• Read it aloud. Speaking aloud what you’ve written can help you spot hard-to-find writing problems, such as a choppy sentence structure or the repetitive use of a word. If you stumble over a sentence, change it.
• Don’t rely on spell-check. Your computer’s spell-check function is a handy tool, but it won’t detect some errors. If a word is spelled correctly —even if it’s the wrong word choice—your spell-check will ignore it. One unfortunate job hunter, for example, wrote about how much she enjoyed working with her "business collies." To ensure your writing is free of such mistakes, review your own work carefully, and ask several others to do the same before sending it out.
• Organize your thoughts. Before putting pen to paper, identify the main points you want to convey. These should be contained in the first few sentences of your document. Use transitions to guide your reader from one thought to the next, and insert bullet points where appropriate to highlight key messages.
• Hit the classroom. If, despite your best efforts, you still lack confidence in your writing ability, consider taking a business-writing course. You may be able to find one through your local community college, a professional association or by searching online.
The time you spend honing your writing skills will help you throughout your career. Whether creating a project estimate or drafting an email, you’ll be able to express yourself with confidence.
The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.