Is your writing old school?

10 November 2017

Without even being aware of it, you may be sending a message through your writing style that you, or your organisation, are out-dated. Gone are the days of trying to impress the boss or your client with a fat report full of long, complex sentences using words containing multiple syllables.

In a fast-paced world where time is squeezed into tiny grabs, it’s essential that what we write is understood on first reading. This is not only critical for efficiency, but also to convey the message that you are not hiding anything.

So how exactly has writing at work changed?

We make it more personal. As a university student in the 80s, I did casual office work and regularly typed letters that began ‘In reference to correspondence of the 11th instant’ and ‘Please return the executed document to the undersigned by the 30th August’. Thankfully, we would now write, ‘Thank you for your email’ or ‘Please sign and return the attached document to me by 30 August’.

We use active rather than passive voice. Active and passive voice refers to the way words are ordered in a sentence. Passive voice is an indirect way of writing often associated with a bureaucratic, old school and less personal style; for example, ‘An email will be forwarded on receipt of the goods from the supplier.’

Active voice, on the other hand, is a more direct and precise way of writing. It is more personal and will give your writing immediacy; for example, ‘We will email you as soon as we receive the goods from the supplier.’

In passive voice, the subject (the person responsible for the action) is often left out of the sentence altogether; for example, ‘The policy must be reviewed annually.’ Although grammatically correct, this sentence has little value as it’s not clear who is responsible for reviewing the policy.

We choose plain English words. When choosing words, the needs of your reader is the most important consideration. Unless you are writing to a colleague in your field, jargon can confuse and alienate your reader, while other words can come across as unnecessarily formal, outdated or complex.

For a contemporary style, use ‘before’ rather than ‘prior to’, ‘begin’ or ‘start’ rather than ‘commence’ and ‘use’ rather than ‘utilise’. As for buzz words and phrases, such as ‘moving forward’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘game changer’, these don’t give your communication a contemporary twist, they are just plain annoying to most readers.

Although the current trend in writing is to simplify, many people mistakenly believe this means ‘dumbing down’, implying that their audience is of lesser intelligence. Yet even the most intelligent or motivated reader will become irritated by dense and poorly-worded communications.

With people less and less inclined to read the written word at all, clarity and conciseness and a focus on the needs of our reader is imperative. This will not only portray your organisation as efficient and up-to-date, it sends the message that you respect your readers’ time and their needs.

Is your writing style sending the wrong signal?

For an obligation-free appraisal of your organisation’s writing, contact Concise Writing Consultancy on 02 9238 6638.

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