How to Write at Work

write-at-workI'm the father of two adult daughters and a teenaged granddaughter.

They have told me a hundred times “what you say is not as important as how you say it.”

They know that it's easy to be misunderstood, or to deliberately say one thing and mean something else.

Here are my three keys to being understood when you write at your work.

Key #1: Be Diplomatic

The foolish are quickly distinguished from the wise by what they say, or by what they write … especially in e-mails that are never, ever, in a million years erased.

Employers promote people who can write a simple message to other employees, other companies or <gasp> the federal government without causing strife.

Ever get an email like this?

"From: Reginald Mufflebarger

To: All Mufflebarger workers

Stealing sandwiches from Staff Refrigerators will not be tolerated! There are so many thieving thieves at Mufflebarger Enterprises that we have been forced to put soap shavings in random bags of leftovers. If you become sick on a randomly poisoned meal found in Staff Refrigerators and you cannot prove the food is yours, you will be subject to dismissal."

Diplomats know how to break horrible news in ways that don’t seem so horrible. We are not diplomats, but when we cannot write something kind or pleasant, we should choose one of these options:

  • Wait until we can express ourselves in a positive manner.
  • Let someone more diplomatic write the message.

If you’re thinking, “I tell the truth. I don’t care whose feelings I hurt. Diplomacy is for wimps!” you will, in my humble opinion, be replaced, overthrown, fired or generally doomed to reaping the unpleasantness you sow.

When you communicate, be positive. If you cannot be positive, be kind. If you cannot be positive or kind, be silent. Please.

Key #2: Be Brief

Keep e-mails simple:

Addresses

  • E-mails are often sent to too many uninvolved recipients.
  • If you must send messages to a large group, reserve the “to” and “cc” fields for individuals you want to have the power to reply to the entire group.  
  • All other e-mail addresses should be relegated to the “bcc” field. This will cut down on “reply to all” congestion.

Subject

  • This is where good e-mails go bad. Think of the Subject field as a headline or the title of a book. Who hasn’t clicked on a link simply because of an evocative title? A good Subject will improve your response.
  • Subjects such as “meeting” or “important” or “Memo from Mr. Mufflebarger” are not much better than leaving the field blank.
  • If the original topic of the e-mail changes after a few exchanges, update the Subject line. This helps eliminate slogging through innumerable messages seeking content you need quickly.

Content

  • Greet your readers, but abandon the To Whom It May Concern blather. Find a way to say good morning or “greetings.”
  • Get to the point. There are times when you must provide background information or introductory material, but don’t bury your message.
  • Be truthful. This is hard for some and seemingly impossible for others. Honest workers are more valuable than dishonest workers.
  • If you have content that you want to highlight, use bullets. 
  • Get your facts straight. If you’re inviting people to a meeting, for example, be specific with the correct place, time and topic.  
  • Briefly recap your message, if you want to be certain you are understood.
  • Write clearly. Never use the words “disingenuous” or “as it were” or “if you will” or “inconceivable.” No, they do not make you seem smarter.
  • If you close your messages positively, someday you will be promoted.

Key #3: Be Informative

Everyone will read your first e-mail. Most will give your second missive a shot. But, when readers think reading your stuff is a waste of time, you could be bleeding in a ditch and no one will open your message. Why die needlessly? If you ask someone to read your e-mails, make it worth their time.

  • Be sure to answer the Who, What, When, Where, Why questions readers might ask about your topic.
  • If you have too much information for your readers to digest in one gulp, send additional messages on individual topics, if necessary.
  • Proofread your message. Be the first to find your mistakes, not the last.
  • Spell-check your message. Obvious errors are never obvious to writers, only to readers.
  • If the content is exceptionally important, have a trusted (literate) friend read it before you hit send.
  • Be positive.

Final Thoughts

The best business memos are:

  1. Diplomatic
  2. Brief
  3. Informative

Measure your words – especially those that will linger forever online – because “what you say is not as important as how you say it.” 


About the author

Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.