3 Steps to Improve Your Writing Skills
What I’m about to say might be a bit surprising, but writing skills are a power skill, even in this digital age. Sure, companies still want their employees to have technical skills to keep up with digital transformation and automation, but good writing skills help all employees effectively communicate their ideas and influence people.
There’s been plenty of research showing the value of communication in today’s workplace. For example, communication was ranked as the #4 top soft skill in the workplace in 2019 on Udemy for Business. And according to Udemy’s Humanizing Learning Report, communication is one of the critical human skills that won’t be replaced by robots. No matter how much technology advances, humans will always need to communicate effectively with each other. Moreover, writing skills and communication will become increasingly important.
In my course, Write Like a Boss: Master Your Business Writing Skills, I help learners write with more confidence, clarity, and impact. Whether your employees are writing emails, presentation notes, or performance reviews, chances are they’ll need to write on a regular basis, no matter what their role.
Why follow a specific writing process?
Do you often sit around and wait for inspiration to strike before you start writing? This approach can lead to a lot of wasted time and frustration, which is why I teach a three-step writing process.
When we know what steps to take, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time we write. We can replicate the process, which saves us time. Plus, taking a structured approach helps us reduce the uncertainty of writing. Taking the time to define the context, audience, and purpose upfront clarifies why we’re writing so we don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about what we’re writing.
Finally, following a process helps us understand our habits and preferences as writers. It’s important to know how our process affects our goals. For example, I work better under pressure—that’s when my creativity comes out. A key element of my process is blocking off big chunks of time around a deadline so I know I have uninterrupted space for writing. I also map out deadlines for each task over a period of time so I can tackle it in small chunks rather than being overwhelmed or intimidated by a monumental project.
Having a writing process helps you balance multiple projects or periods of high stress by breaking down a huge task into small manageable steps that help you reach the finish line. Now that we’ve covered why it’s important to follow a process, let’s take a look at my “3Ps writing process”: planning, producing, and polishing, plus a few general writing tips.
Step 1: Planning
The first step of the 3Ps Writing Process is “planning.” This step involves thinking about the context, the purpose, and the audience of our message. I recommend spending about 25% of the entire process time in the planning stage. This might sound like a lot (especially for people who aren’t used to doing any planning at all), so let’s break it down a bit further.
Context: The what of writing
First, what are you writing? This is your context. To figure out the specifics of your context, ask questions like:
- What type of message is this? An email? A report? A proposal?
- What is the timing of my message? Is it urgent? Can it wait until later?
- What kinds of research do I need? How will I find these stats, stories, or examples?
- Do I want to create a written record with this message? Is the topic too sensitive?
Purpose: The why of writing
Why are you writing? This is your purpose. Generally, there are three main purposes of business communication: to inform, persuade, or promote goodwill. Understanding the purpose will determine which strategy you use to organize your message. Most importantly, if you aren’t clear on what you’re trying to accomplish, then you can be sure your reader will be confused.
Audience: It’s all about them
This brings us to the third and most important consideration. Who are you writing for? This is your audience. With business messages, in particular, we need to consider two audiences. The primary audience or the people you are directly targeting with your writing. The secondary audience is anyone that could possibly read your message. Remember that once you put something in writing, it lives forever.
In business communication, helping your audience is helping yourself. If they understand your message and why it matters to them, your audience is much more likely to actually read (and agree with) what you’ve written.
When we are thinking about our audience, we should ask ourselves questions like:
- How will they react to my message? Positive, neutral, or negative?
- What do they expect from me? In an email your boss may look past a few typos, but not in a formal client proposal.
- What do they need from me? What information will help them understand my position?
- What do they want from me? Do they prefer short or long emails? Do they even like emails, or do they prefer phone calls?
Step 2: Producing
The second step of the 3Ps Writing Process is creating and organizing or “producing” your content. Ideally, I recommend spending about 25% of the entire process time on this step. You may be asking yourself, “How in the world do I only spend 25% of my time actually writing the thing? That doesn’t make any sense.” Remember, though, that we’ve already spent 25% of our time planning. And the last step, “polishing,” is what actually takes up the other half of our time.
For many people, staring at a blank page can cause anxiety. How do you know where to start? In my course, Write Like a Boss: Master Your Business Writing Skills, I go into much more detail about these strategies, but here I’ll provide a quick overview.
One technique is to “free write,” which basically means sitting down and writing any thoughts that come to mind. This approach puts quantity over quality and works best with a time limit. Remember, what gets produced during this stage doesn’t need to be perfect—save the editing and proofreading for the polishing stage.
Another technique I recommend is working from an outline. Start with main sections, headings, and length, and then fill in the gaps with writing. Through the revision process, this structure may change but it helps to get something out on the page to begin.
Step 3: Polishing
In my course, I’m fighting against what communication expert Nancy Duarte calls “one draft culture.” Most of us think we just sit down and write and then hit send, but this is definitely not the case. Writers who take time to stop, think, carefully revise, and proofread before they hit the send button will have a much more successful message. I actually recommend spending half of the time for any writing project on revising and proofreading.
This final step, polishing, involves evaluating your writing sentence by sentence as well as making final decisions about your writing’s structure and format. It also includes proofreading, where you check your work for typos and formatting errors.
For this step, I recommend working backwards from your deadline, factoring in other commitments, and knowing your own personality, habits, and behaviors. Some people will work until the very last minute while others prefer to finish a project well ahead of time. Regardless of your personal style, try to have at least a little time between the polishing stage and when you hit “send” so you can do one final look with fresh eyes.Now you’re familiar with the 3Ps Writing Process: planning, producing, and polishing. In my course, Write Like a Boss: Master Your Business Writing Skills, we’ll go into much more detail about each step and look at practical examples and tips to help learners fine-tune their writing skills. My goal is to help everyone feel confident that they can write clearly and effectively.
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Last Updated February 2020
How to write better emails and proposals, save valuable time, and develop powerful written communication skills. | By Elizabeth Goins, Ph.D.Explore Course