Is your writing drowning your readers in a sea of words – English words? Are you looking for ways to improve your English writing?
When writing is unclear and difficult to read, we are quick to jump to the conclusion that the problem is poor English. But in many cases, a few grammar mistakes and syntax errors are masking foggy and sometimes unintelligible writing.
The good news is you can improve your English writing and you don’t need grammar lessons.
I want to suggest 3 simple steps. If you can stick to these 3 steps you can and will increase the power of your English writing.
Does this sound familiar?
We asked the nice English lady next door to correct the English in our report. Or, my nephew who lived in the States for six months checked the English for us.
No doubt they picked up some grammar and spelling errors. But did they really improve the report?
Most likely, it didn’t cost anything, except maybe, a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine. So, you can’t be too demanding.
Asking a family member, friend, or colleague to help with English writing is quite common practice.
It happens quite a lot in the Netherlands, and elsewhere, where professionals are writing in English as their second language.
This is a cheap option, and who can blame a company looking to cut overheads.
The fact is …
Professional languages services are often seen as an unnecessary cost. University-educated professionals are supposed to be proficient in the language of international business.
Most young professionals in the Netherlands speak fluent English and interact effortlessly in the business environment. But, when they put their fingers to the keyboard the picture changes.
I’ve worked for many years in the Netherlands as a freelance writer/editor and writing trainer/coach. I’ve helped writers in sectors ranging from engineering to banking, from transport to environment, from health to marketing.
Two things keep on cropping up that you need to know if you want to write with power and impact in English.
Let me explain.
Something is wrong with the English
The call for some one to look at the English in a company report, or any other document, tends to come quite late in the writing process.
Often, the boss or the project manager reviewing the report announces find someone to check the English. Or, during a review of your draft report, the client politely but firmly suggests someone should look at the English.
Most project managers who control the purse strings are prepared to take action. But it should not cost too much or take too much time.
Why not ask our colleague who has worked in the UK or the US for a while. It should only take a few hours, a day at the most. Probably, that’s all the time our friendly colleague has to spare from his/her own work.
But have you ever tried to read a 250-page report in say 4 hours?
Sure, you can skim the report in that time. But it’s not sufficient to do a comprehensive review. Maybe, you can pick up a few glaring language errors.
How cost-effective is this exercise?
Not poor English but unclear writing
Whether it’s the project manager or the client who reviewed the report, they have put their finger on a real problem.
The report is difficult to read. In some places it’s impossible to work out the intended meaning.
Even so, many writers will protest that their readers will understand their report. After all, they are familiar with the subject matter. Maybe so, but are they prepared to persist with unintelligible writing?
When a report is difficult to read, this failure is quickly attributed to poor English. Sure, if you take a closer look, there are grammar and syntax errors that must be corrected.
Language issues are masking a more serious problem of dense, unclear writing.
The writing is dense and uninviting to read. Sentences are often extremely long, extending over 4, 5 or even more lines. Reader can’t get a grip on the writer’s intended message.
There is little or no logical flow from one idea to the next. In some places, the text is unfathomable and the message is entirely lost.
This is just the tip of an iceberg. The long-term consequences are only slowly beginning to emerge.
Already, there are rumblings about unclear writing that companies may not be able to afford to ignore for much longer.
Yet, many companies have little idea of the cost to them of unclear writing. Maybe, if this cost were a balance sheet item, things would change rapidly.
How to help yourself
Unfortunately, much English writing training tends to focus on grammar and syntax.
Techniques for clear, concise writing have been given somewhat of a back seat. But it’s vital that professionals learn and master these writing techniques.
This is especially the case if we agree with the situation in US companies. Professionals there are estimated to spend up to 85% of their time writing and reading documents of various types.
You can give yourself a head start to more powerful writing.
But i’s going to require a change in mindset. Not too great a change, but it will require a more disciplined approach to your writing.
Here it is!
Fighting tight deadlines, writers tend to present their first draft fresh from the keyboard without even the briefest revision or review.
There lies the root of unclear writing!
I’ve raised this issue in my writing workshops, but the quick response is no time for such niceties. OK, deadlines are a fact of life.
Yet, if writers just made time to review their own work, much impenetrable fog attributed to poor English could be eliminated.
Unclear writing is a product of unclear thinking. Writing in English as a second language is an added complication, but it’s not an excuse for unclear thinking.
Albert Einstein summed it up succinctly in his well-known quote: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well.”
3 steps to more powerful writing
Here is a fail-safe, self-help way to improve your own writing.
Write your draft text in three steps: write-revise-check.
Stick vigorously to these three steps, and you can and will increase the power of your writing.
Don’t skip any of the steps. If your deadline is pressing, you may have to burn the midnight oil occasionally.
Step 1. Write your first draft
Aim to get your ideas and information on paper in a logical sequence. Remember, this first draft is part of the thinking process. So, focus on the content and structuring the content.
In business writing, reports, proposals and the like, your readers want to find what you have to say quickly and easily.
This means you need to front-load your writing. Put your key message at the beginning and back it up with supporting facts and figures.
Front loading is the other way around to the deductive academic writing you may have learned at university.
Step 2: Revise your draft and don’t be timid!
Check the logical structure of your argument.
Rewrite your text several times if need be to get your key message up front in each section and paragraph.
Make sure each key message is adequately backed with sound argumentation.
Check sentence by sentence to ensure that your intended message is stated clearly and concisely.
You may need to repeat this step several times before you and your team are completely satisfied.
Step 3: Check your draft carefully
The focus here is on language, grammar, spelling and punctuation. And don’t forget those extra spaces between words that seem to annoy everyone!
A word of warning!
Don’t skip this step because these minor errors are noticed first. They tend to prejudice reviewers in their assessment of the content of your writing.
Here’s a final tip that you may already know. But just in case, here it is again. Don’t ignore the technology you have right at your fingertips.
Word spell and grammar check will help you to pick up and deal with minor language issues.
So, do take the time to learn how to make the spell and grammar check work best for you. But bear in mind these auto checks do have their limitations.
Writers and reviewers tend to attribute an unclear and difficult to read report to poor English.
In most cases, the real problem is dense, unclear writing. More often than not, poor English is masking unclear writing that in turn is the result of unclear thinking.
The good news is you can break this cycle by meticulously following the three steps: write – revise – check.
Good luck with your next report. If this blog has raised any questions for you or you would just like to know more, feel free to contact me, Helen West, at firstname.lastname@example.org