Writing well can be difficult even for those who do it professionally. The English language is rife with opportunities to use the wrong words, punctuation, syntax, or style. And while some might shrug off an inability to communicate in writing as no big deal, others say it matters more than you might think.
Writing, communication skills, and organizational skills are in high demand in nearly every occupation—even fields like IT and engineering—but difficult for employers to find, according to a study by job market analytics software firm Burning Glass Technologies.
And being unable to write well may also hurt your personal brand and effectiveness. “If you have a reputation as a bad communicator, a bad writer, when emails come in and they see it’s from a certain person, a lot of people might just delete it before reading it. Like, “Oh, I know this never has anything important in it,” says business writing coach Jodi Torpey.
While learning to communicate well in writing is a skill that takes practice, there are some tricks of the trade. Here, professional writing coaches share the most common writing mistakes they encounter—and how to remember to stop making them.
Using the wrong tone
One common error that business writing coach Wilma Davidson, author of Business Writing: What Works, What Won’t, sees often in her coaching practice is simply writing inappropriately for the audience. Whether it’s not considering what the recipient cares about, or sounding like you’re scolding when you’re correcting behavior, the wrong tone will turn people off, she says. Today, people need to consider cultural differences for global audiences.
Solution. Visualize your recipient, suggests business writing consultant Natalie Canavor, author of Business Writing for Dummies. “Just take a minute to see them in your head, look at their office, hear their voice in your head,” she says. When you see the audience as a real person or people, you’re more likely to address them in a tone that resonates with them.
Burying the key message
In journalism, it’s called “burying the lede”—or “lead” to others. And it simply means that you’re taking too long to get to the point. Providing context or chronology may be necessary, but state your purpose or point up front, then get into the details, Torpey says.
Solution. Write like a journalist, Torpey says. Journalists typically use the “inverted pyramid” approach to writing, stating the most relevant facts–who, what, when, where, and why–upfront. Then, they provide the background and supporting material for their story. This way, even if the reader doesn’t finish your email or document, you’ve still had a chance to get your point across.
Committing word gaffes
If social media has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a great deal of confusion about the use of certain words. Using the wrong word can make your writing confusing—or even change the meaning of what you’ve written—and may lead the audience to question your intelligence. Senka Hadzimuratovic, the head of communications at grammar platform Grammarly, points to commonly misused words, such as:
- Than versus then: “Than” is comparative, while “then” can mean at that time or next in time/space/order.
- Lose versus loose: “Lose” is a verb that can mean fail to win, misplace, or free oneself from something or someone. “Loose” is an adjective that means “not tight.”
She also says people often have a problem with confusing homophones, such as:
- Their/There/They’re: “Their” means “belonging to them.” “There” indicates a place. “They’re” is a contraction of “they are.”
- Your/You’re: Your means “belonging to you.” You’re is a contraction of “you are.”
Solution. “While they may sound similar, their differences ring loud and clear when written. Confusing these can often discredit your writing at work, so we strongly advise proofreading to ensure you’re using the correct word,” Hadzimuratovic says. Reading the document out loud can also help you spot instances where you have used the wrong word. And look especially closely when you spot an apostrophe. If it’s not contracting two words or showing possession, it’s probably wrong, she adds.
And there are times when even using the right word can be problematic. Hadzimuratovic points out that “irregardless” is a word — it means the same thing as regardless. But dictionaries consider it nonstandard, and people have strong feelings about it. Grammarly took a poll, and 74% of readers did not consider it a word. In such situations, it may be better to substitute a more commonly accepted word.
Including problematic turns of phrase
Using tired phrases, colloquialisms, or idioms can be problematic. Hadzimuratovic says they can be difficult to learn and not translate well in business settings. For example, the phrase, “I could care less” is most often used to indicate that you have no interest left. To say, “I could care less” is, in fact, to imply that you do have more ability to care. The phrase for those searching to say they’ve really reached their wit’s end is, “I could not care less.”
Solution. “Get rid of clichés,” Davidson says. “They do nothing for your writing.” When you find yourself relying on well-worn phrases, find another way to say what you mean.