IT Career JumpStart

Sep 1 2008   2:52PM GMT

Soft Skills (Part 2 of 4): Written Communications

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

It’s no exaggeration to say that written communications are important to nearly every job. This is especially true or IT, where reports, analyses, evaluations, and even plain, humble e-mail messages, are part of the regular grind. Though it’s rare to hear of IT professionals garnering promotions or new jobs solely on the basis of writing ability, a knack for clear, cogent communication never hurt anybody’s prospects.

I’ll assume you buy into the idea that improving written communications is good for you and your career development. What can you do to boost yourself in this all-important area? You must look for opportunities to exercise and improve on this ability. For laughs and reinforcement, remember the old punchline about how to get to Carnegie Hall–namely: “Practice, practice, practice.”

That said, constant repetition of bad habits only reinforces them, so there’s another ingredient that must come into play to make sure that practice leads you in the right direction (toward improving your writing skills, that is). This ingredient is feedback. You can provide some of this feedback to yourself, in fact, if you’re willing to take the time and expend the energy. This means running spelling and grammar checker tools on your text to make sure you’re not breaking obvious rules (and you’ll find that even tools such as Microsoft Word can be helpful ). It also means taking the time to re-read your writing and to ask yourself if your writing is reasonably clear, accurate, and compact.

Feedback from others is also good, because it exposes you to input and points of view that you might not come up with on your own. This goes double if you can enlist the support of someone who’s a better writer than you are, who sees your weaknesses and failings, and helps you overcome them. As somebody who’s trained more than a dozen practicing IT professionals to write professionally, let me recount the five most common failings that such people must often overcome:

  1. Passive voice: a terrible affliction among academics and professionals of all stripes, those who want to improve must learn to recognize the passive voice and learn how to make their writing more direct
  2. Inverted sentences: Many inexperienced writers like to put the object before the subject in their sentences. State your subject first, then modify or explore it afterwards, for clear exposition.
  3. Misuse of apostrophes: Especially when distinguishing the possessive of it (its) from the contraction for “it is” (it’s), aspiring writers often tend to use apostrophes when they shouldn’t, and fail to use them when they should. As a start, expanding all contractions that might involve an apostrophe is a good way to steer clear of such errors.
  4. Organize your thoughts: especially in educational materials, but more generally in any kind of expository writing, the old “tell ’em three times” approach remains a good one. Lead into your subject material by describing what you plan to communicate (tell ’em once). This also has the advantage of providing a map of what lies ahead. Next, cover your subjects one at a time, in the same order you laid out in the initial description (tell ’em again, in detail this time). Finally, summarize your key points to complete your coverage (tell ’em a third time, and leave them with the most important information reinforced).
  5. Keep it simple: when you review your work (which is probably the most important activity you can perform to sharpen and maintain writing skills), ask yourself: “Is this sentence too long?” “Do I really need to use this many words?” “Am I getting my points across?” If you always seek to communicate as quickly and effectively as possible, you can count on keeping your readers’ attention, and occasionally, on earning their gratitude for not wasting their time.

One of the best ways to improve writing skills is to take a writing class. Most local community colleges offer evening or weekend classes to accommodate workaday schedules. Most of them also cover a variety of topics at reasonable prices, including technical writing, business communications, and even creative writing. A class puta you in contact with a trained professional (your teacher) who can provide regular feedback. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn some new techniques and better communication skills by example along the way, but at a minimum you should receive detailed, informative feedback on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. This lets you to build on the former, and work to correct or overcome the latter, both of which should help you improve.

If taking a class doesn’t fit your schedule, consider acquriing and working through some books to help you boost your skills. That old Strunk and White standby, The Elements of Style, remains as relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago when it first appeared in print. Other useful titles you might consider include:

  1. Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus by Susan Shapiro (Paperback – Sep 28, 2007)
  2. In the Middle: New Understanding About Writing, Reading, and Learning (Workshop Series) by Nancie Atwell (Paperback – Feb 11, 1998)
  3. Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works(Interactive Technologies) by Janice (Ginny) Redish (Paperback – Jun 11, 2007)
  4. Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers (Hardcover – Jul 2000)
  5. The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well by Paula LaRocque (Paperback – Sep 1, 2003)

A final piece of advice: a writing book is deeply personal. Rather than buying any or all of these titles on the strength of my recommendation alone, hoist yourself out of your chair and check them out at a nearby bookstore. You may not like any of them, but you should be in that section of the bookstore where you can browse for others that may be more to your taste.


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