You’re not a writer. You can put words on paper, of course, but you’re not about to write the next War and Peace or Harry Potter. Despite this, you can’t escape at least the occasional bit of business writing. Maybe it’s a recommendation for a subordinate or summarizing the last month’s work for your boss. Just a few paragraphs, but that’s a lot longer than your usual three-line emails and you’ve got to get it written today and you don’t have an assistant available to take care of it. What do you do so you don’t embarrass yourself?
First, don’t worry. The fact that you’re concerned at all means you’ll probably do just fine because you can look at your writing and determine either “yes, this is good” or “no, this is not good.” That’s key right there.
The secret to writing, as obvious as it sounds, is to put words on paper (or your digital text file, whatever). It doesn’t matter if they’re good; that’s what editing is for. Just write something. Let’s assume you’re writing that letter of recommendation. You might write something like the following:
Alice is a good employee. I recommend her for the position of Head Spork Tester. She has done a good job coming up with plans to test Sporks here in Oceanview, Illinois and I like working with her. You should totes hire her.
The pinnacle of writing this is not, but you now have words on paper and somewhere to start. That’s already an accomplishment!
Depending on how good of an editor you are, you can take it from there using the flowchart above and turn out a nice, finished product. Let’s assume, however, that you’re not confident in your editing skills or you usually only edit for grammar, not content. An edit for grammar on the above will turn up that “totes” isn’t accepted business speak, but that’s it. You want your writing to be better than just grammatically correct, so let’s modify the flow chart into something a little more useful.
Even if you’re not a “writer,” you can identify a theme in your writing or notice if your points are confusing. Let’s take that writing sample and follow these new, improved directions.
This chart calls for research before writing. Okay, you can do that. Review the work your subordinate has done while on your team, maybe by checking her employee file, skimming through some emails, or asking a co-worker what that good thing you said about Alice the other day was. Identify instances where she did a really outstanding job or demonstrated skills that apply to the new position you’re recommending her for. Step one complete!
Next up, write something. You can cheat and copy your notes from the research stage if you can’t think of anything else to say. Just get some words down.
Alice came up with the plan to test large quantities of Sporks with x-rays, which saved the company 200 billion dollars in 2012. Alice has developed good connections with her counterparts at our overseas factories. Alice makes managing her easy because she receives criticism well and puts lots of effort into learning how to be even better at her job.
Did you include enough information? This is a good stage to add more because you haven’t done any editing yet, but let’s assume this is enough for now and move on. Do you have a clear central theme? No. There is currently no central theme at all except that Alice does things. No worries; you can fix that easily. Just add a sentence to the beginning stating your theme, then add a few connector words and supporting sentences to the rest of your text to tie it in.
Your theme is that you recommend Alice for Head Spork Tester (yes, business writing themes are usually that straightforward). Supporting sentences will explain why the stuff you already wrote ties into that theme. For example, why does it matter that she’s developed good connections overseas? Because the Head Spork Tester is a manager who has to communicate with offices across the globe, presumably, so add that in. Don’t assume your reader will know what your examples are meant to show.
I recommend Alice for the position of Head Spork Tester. As an example of her qualifications, Alice came up with the plan to test large quantities of Sporks with x-rays, which saved the company 200 billion dollars in 2012. Innovation and fiscal savvy like she showed are crucial for a Head Tester position. Alice has developed good connections with her counterparts at our overseas factories, which would serve her well in a management position requiring global communication. When it comes to personal improvement, Alice receives criticism well and puts lots of effort into learning how to be even better at her job. Head Tester are expected to constantly improve, so this is an ideal characteristic in a candidate.
Notice how the only things that have changed are the addition of a theme statement and why those things you learned during your research support your theme. Easy-peasy! You don’t have to be a writer to do that.
Re-read your work. Now that you’ve got a theme in place, double-check that it’s the theme you want. It sounds silly, but just about everyone writes a piece at some point that manages to completely miss the theme they were going for. Unfortunately, you really can’t catch it until you’ve actually written something.
Are your points easy to understand? Take it sentence by sentence. “I recommend…” No ambiguity there. “…The plan to test…” Hmm. Your reader might not know anything about what x-rays have to do with Sporks or why what Alice did was particularly different from what anyone else might have done. Not a problem; just flesh it out a bit to explain.
She noticed that testers were testing sporks individually for impurities, a process taking up to five minutes per spork. Alice researched several different methods of testing sporks, identified three that could be used on more than one spork at a time, and suggested x-rays as the most cost-effective and least disruptive method to implement.
You’re just describing what she did. No complicated writing here. They’re the same words you might use when talking on the phone with a friend who has an abnormal interest in x-ray applications. Lather, rinse, repeat for the rest of your sentences, fleshing out anything that you think might not be clear to someone who isn’t intimately familiar with what Spork Testers do and adding examples. Insert paragraph breaks liberally. Your reader may be reading your words on a phone or tablet with a small screen and definitely won’t mind additional white space to break things up.
Does your conclusion match your opening? No, because right now you don’t even have a conclusion. That’s okay, conclusions are easy too. Just re-state your theme and say that the stuff you said in the previous sentences means your theme statement is right.
For all of the reasons above, Alice would be a fantastic Head Spork Tester and I recommend her highly to anyone considering her for the position.
Exception: If your piece of writing is only a paragraph long, skip the conclusion. More than a couple paragraphs, throw in at least a sentence restating the theme to tie everything neatly together.
Finally, run through your work again and check your grammar and spelling. Look good? Then you’re done! You’ve effectively written a short piece stating a position, backing that position up with researched facts, and concluding that your position is right, all in perfectly business-like fashion. If your sentences are simply constructed and to the point, that’s all to the good in a business setting. You’re communicating clearly, and hey, I hear that’s a great trait for someone in a Head Spork Tester position.
I recommend Alice for the position of Head Spork Tester. As an example of her qualifications, Alice came up with the plan to test large quantities of Sporks with x-rays, which saved the company 200 billion dollars in 2012. She noticed that testers were testing Sporks individually for impurities, a process taking up to five minutes per Spork. Alice researched several different methods of testing Sporks, identified three that could be used on more than one Spork at a time, and suggested x-rays as the most cost-effective and least disruptive method to implement. Innovation and fiscal savvy like she showed are crucial for a Head Tester position.
Alice has developed good connections with her counterparts at our overseas factories, discussing her ideas with them and learning about their own innovations. At last year’s company conference in Ontario, she was greeted warmly by colleague after colleague in the halls. These connections and her ability to make them would serve her very well in a management position requiring global communication.
When it comes to personal improvement, Alice receives criticism well and puts a lot of effort into learning how to be even better at her job. For example, a co-worker had some difficultly reading one of her early reports. Alice talked with him to identify which parts were confusing and adapted her reports from then on to include a table of contents and graphs that clearly labeled her results. Head Testers are expected to constantly improve, so this is an ideal characteristic in a candidate.
For all of the reasons above, Alice would be a fantastic Head Spork Tester. I recommend her highly to anyone considering her for the position.