Writing That Works

"What you do need is a degree of determination - the perseverance to be sure you’ve said what you want to say."

- Writing That Works, page xii

There is a wonderfully clichéd image that comes to mind when someone you meet says that they’re a professional writer. You know the one – sitting at a desk looking rather disheveled. Steaming cup of coffee off to the side. Furiously writing only to pause, cross everything off, crumple up the piece of paper and then throw it across the room. They pace around the room for a few moments. Then, a flash of brilliance and they begin writing once more. While this may be the image that we have of professional writers, it’s also not a far cry from the image of the average non-writer writing. Everyone struggles with writing at one point or another – it seems to be a fact of life.

Even though writing is at the bedrock of most education systems and essential for most career paths, most adults struggle with it to a point of hindrance and frustration. Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson recognized this challenge in the business environment and wrote Writing That Works in response to what they witnessed. Writing That Works is a succinct manual that aims to help professionals improve their writing in order to produce effective communications and their desired results. It covers the basic principles of good writing as well as best practices for different mediums like email, reports, letters, presentations, proposals and speeches. Each section provides concise advice along with examples of what works and what does not work. The format of this book makes it a desirable reference for a professional in any field.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Effective Communication Is the Ultimate Time Saver

"Your ability to write persuasively can help you get things done and arrive at your goal – today, this month, or during the decades of your career."
- Writing That Works, page 5

During the course of writing their book, Roman and Raphaelson spoke with a number of senior leadership figures at large companies to get a sense as to why communication is often an impediment. One CEO hit the nail on the head when he said, “Too many of the communications I get are meaningless. They don’t help me understand what action the writer wants me to take”. This very accurately reflects how most people feel about email and other internal communications.

Making time to determine your message and call to action, and reviewing what you wrote is essential. In our fast paced world where everyone wants an instant response, we’ve picked up some bad habits. It’s time to change that. Carve out a little extra time for writing and focus on improving what you are communicating.

Roman and Raphaelson suggest a number of ways to improve writing, and my personal favourites are: make the organization of your writing clear, be specific and write the way you speak (i.e. naturally).

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

There is a Logic of Business Communication

"To those in government or education and nonprofit institutions, [the logic of business communication] is identified and welcomed as ‘businesslike.’ In business, it is taken for granted."
- Writing That Works, pages 90-91

Roman and Raphaelson make a case that there is a logic of business communication and go on to define this logic as one that, “pushes projects, solves problems, sets plans and moves ideas into action”. Yet when we set out to write something, this intention is often overlooked.

This is also a key frustration for many people as they write. Halfway through you might reread what you’ve written thus far only to find that it isn’t making much sense or it’s entirely off topic. I’ve certainly had those moments and they can make you feel like tossing in the towel.

Next time before putting pen to paper or fingers to keys, take a moment to ground yourself in your purpose for writing – what Roman and Raphaelson call the logic. Understanding what you want the reader to take away enables you to work backwards to create stronger organization in your piece and stay on point as you write.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Two Simple Editing Tips

"Nothing you write will be born smooth either. Edit to scrape off roughness."
- Writing That Works, page 177

It can be a huge relief to hit the period key at the end of your document. What you needed to say is now said and you’re ready to move on with other tasks. Not so fast. Editing is the most essential part of the writing process because it is where you polish any mistakes, fine tune your language and make sure that your message shines through. To make the most out of the editing process, Roman and Raphaelson suggest the following.

1. Let time elapse between drafts. Allowing some time between completing your writing and editing it will allow you come back to it with a fresh perspective. If you reread it too soon, you might find that your mind will read a sentence as it remembers writing it, not as it is actually written.

2. Solicit the opinion of other people. With business communication, you are usually not writing for yourself. There’s no better way to gain insight as to whether or not you’ve communicated a message to your intended audience clearly than to get a fresh pair of eyes to read your piece. Even the late, great David Ogilvy was known to send drafts of all important papers to several people with the note, “Please Improve.”

Writing That Works is a well-organized reference book designed for professionals in any field. While I will say that most of what Roman and Raphaelson write about are things we learned in school, it is nice to have a refresher of the principles of good communication and a book full of tips to get you through the tough spots in writing. Their advice is easy to implement, allowing anyone who reads it to become an articulate writer.

What is one thing you could do to improve your writing?

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Vanessa Chase

ABOUT Vanessa Chase

I am a fundraising strategist and copywriter, and run the non-profit resource website, Philanthropy For All. Through my work, my goal is to help passionate non-profit folks better articulate their non-profit’s impact and work is a way that translates to engaged philanthropic communities...
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