Writing skills aren’t just for journalism or advertising careers. Communication transcends career fields, as it is essential for all employees, executives, and entrepreneurs. “Of the so-called soft skills needed for success in the workplace, communication skills are particularly critical,” writes Rebecca R. Hastings for the Society of Human Resource Management.
If you’re changing careers, searching for employment after job loss, or just entering the workforce, most of your time will be spent hunting down opportunities and filling out applications. However, you should also consider using the job search as an opportunity to hone your communication skills. As Dustin Wax of Lifehacker advises, “Spending some time to improve your writing can result in a marked improvement in your hireability and promotional prospects.”
Here are five exercises that will help you develop your business writing skills. Pick one each business day and give it a shot. They shouldn’t take more than half an hour to complete, but these short practice sessions will help improve your skills over time. Write every day as part of your routine until it becomes second nature.
Exercise #1: Read an article or blog post related to your field and write a summary of no more than 100-150 words. The purpose of this exercise is to enhance your reading comprehension—you’ll have to identify the main idea, or thesis, of the article as well as the most pertinent facts—and to hone your writing skills. It’s surprisingly difficult to limit yourself to so few words, so you’ll have to work at being concise. This is the opposite of what students practice in high school and college writing classes, where the goal is to reach an arbitrary word count.
Exercise #2: Draft a form letter of three or four paragraphs that serves a specific purpose. Thank-you notes, cover letters, networking introductions—all of these can be written ahead of time and customized when you need to send one. For example, a thank-you note for an interview might have a few generic sentences and a prompt to personalize the note by including specific details from the interview. There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel each time you need to send correspondence; develop a portfolio of templates to save yourself time and sharpen your writing skills.
Exercise #3: Writing for different audiences is a key skill in business communication. A casual office memo will read differently from an annual report destined for your investors. Take the same basic information—it can be something as simple as a party invitation—and try writing it for two different audiences. First, draft a casual message that you might send to a colleague. Then rewrite the same information for a more formal audience—an executive in your company, for example.
Exercise #4: Pick a topic you’re very familiar with and write a page or two explaining it to an imaginary audience who knows nothing about it. It doesn’t have to be a serious topic; you could write about the best way to make a peanut butter sandwich or explain why The Vampire Diaries is your favorite show. The point is to convey your thoughts as clearly as possible and prioritize which information your audience needs to know.
Exercise #5: Improve your writing by eliminating wordy phrases and meaningless jargon. You can either use the copy you wrote in Exercise #4 or find a blog post to edit. Use a red pen (the color makes it feel more official) and strike out every word that isn’t necessary. Phrases such as “due to the fact that” can be replaced by a single word—“because”—and most modifiers such as “very” can be cut altogether. If you’re having trouble getting started, Purdue’s Online Writing Lab has a great series of exercises on eliminating wordiness.
Of course, the final, essential piece to effective writing for any audience is proofreading. Microsoft Word’s built-in spell check is a decent start, but it doesn’t catch everything. Grammarly is more effective in catching contextual spelling errors and other mistakes that Word misses.