For many employees, writing at work is nearly as worrisome as public speaking.
Maybe your proposals fall flat or you dread penning quarterly reports. Perhaps you sweat over emails, only to have the recipients demand clarifications. Or writing might just take you too long, making you exhausted once you’ve finally done that last spellcheck.
Poor writing skills aren’t just upsetting you; they may be hampering your career. “You are what you write these days,” says Natalie Canavor, author of six books including Business Writing Today and Business Writing in the Digital Age.
Fortunately, she says, most older workers already have a crucial skill necessary to crafting good business communications: Empathy. “I find younger people have a lot of trouble learning to look through somebody else’s eyes. Older people have an advantage in that. We’re more apt to learn there are other viewpoints,” says Canavor.
If you suspect — or have been told — your emails are too long and rambling, get samples of successful emails and compare them to yours.
With the interpersonal skills you’ve already honed, it’s perfectly possible to improve your writing in your 50s or 60s. “‘Skilling up’ is for people of any age,” says Nicholas Wyman, author of Job U: How to Find Wealth and Success by Developing the Skills Companies Actually Need. “It’s a matter of learning by doing.”
Confidence and Efficiency
Lack of confidence may cause you to write slowly — thinking and rethinking the simplest emails until you feel safe hitting “Send.” Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to get more comfortable.
First, assess your skills. Use an online program like Grammarly to review your work and identify trouble spots. Available in free and paid versions, Grammarly checks up to 250 elements of grammar in your documents. It will point out punctuation issues, poor sentence structure and contextual spelling errors and even help build your vocabulary.
You can also test your prose with a feature that’s built into Microsoft Word: the readability tool. To access it, go to the File menu, select Options, then Proofing and check the boxes beside “Check grammar with spelling” and “Show readability statistics.”
When you run a spell check, a popup box will show your “Readability statistics,” including your scores on the Flesch Reading Ease scale. The closer you are to 100, the more readable your writing is. For business writing, aim for a score in the 60 to 70 range and a seventh- or eighth-grade level.
Organization and Flow
Confident or not, you may have trouble organizing your ideas when it’s time to write. If you suspect — or have been told — your emails are too long and rambling, get samples of successful emails and compare them to your own. Email Excellence offers sample emails with explanations of why individual sections work.
If long memos and reports give you trouble, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has several valuable tutorials. It provides guidelines for memos, a checklist for creating reports and other resources.
Another way to improve your organizational skills, Wyman says, is to begin blogging. “Trying to find your voice is really important,” Wyman says. “[A blog] really helps you hone your style.”
Grammar and Spelling
Better grammar is largely a matter of practice. Keep a reference book on hand such as Jan Venolia’s Write Right! or Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty. Also, read blogs such as Fogarty’s, Grammarphobia and Daily Writing Tips.
Once you’ve read up, use an app to quiz yourself. Grammar Up’s basic version is free for iOS and Android devices. The Practice English Grammar app for iOS and Android has free basic quizzes and premium exercises.
The most common spelling slip-ups are homophones (two words with the same pronunciations but different spellings or meanings, such as its and it’s). Use the American Wordspeller And Phonetic Dictionary, for iOS and Android, to find words even when you don’t know how to spell them.
Comprehensive Writing Help
If your writing needs work in every area, consider an online course, local class or one-on-one tutoring.
Syntax Training’s online Writing Tune-Up for Peak Performance covers everything from planning your documents to avoiding passive verbs. The Business Writing Center offers a wide variety of online courses.
Many colleges have business writing classes; search their sites for “non-degree” or “continuing education” courses with titles like “business writing,” “business English” or “workforce English.”
Follow these tips and soon your emails, reports and presentations will be winning raves — and, more importantly, earning you a raise.
Etelka Lehoczky is a Chicago-based freelance journalist who writes about workplace issues, books, business and the arts. She has written for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Money, Inc. and elsewhere.