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3 Tips on Effective Writing

Edward Everett could have been famous.Abraham Lincoln

He gave the official address back in 1863 at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  It was 13,000+ words and lasted more than two hours.  

By contrast, Abraham Lincoln’s speech was about 200 words and lasted 2 minutes.

Which did history remember?

I used this example during a presentation last week on effective written communication at the E.D.G.E. conference in New Orleans. Too often in business we end up communicating like Everett. Here are three tips — I call them the 3Cs of communication — to make us more like Lincoln.

 

Be clear. Don’t “endeavor,” “strategize” or “bucketize.” Try, plan and sort. We often look for the $5 word when the 5 cent one will do just fine. That might have been rewarded in high school English class, but complex words can get in the way in business.  My best advice to avoid this trap: Write like you talk. How would you explain a concept or idea to someone sitting across the table from you? Oh, and make sure to use active voice.

Be concise. Twitter is one the best tools ever created for writing. It demands brevity. Have something complex to say? Tweet it first. No, you don’t actually have to put it out there in the Twittersphere. But boiling down an idea to 140 characters will help you quickly get to the essence of what you need to say. Just be sure to remain mindful of point No. 1 up there. Don’t let brevity prey on clarity.

Be reader centric. “It’s not about you, it’s about them.” An editor once said that to me. When we write, it’s easy to get so caught up in what we want to say that we forget what the reader needs to hear. Put yourself in the shoes of your reader.  Imagine that you are writing for a specific person, even if you’re writing for a whole bunch of them. How old is the reader? What is his/her experience? Hobbies? Using this trick you can figure out when a concept needs more explanation. And you can choose examples and analogies that help you more effectively make your points.

I’m going to throw in a bonus: Edit. Writing is hard, and there’s no reason to go to all the trouble of doing it well only to have a misspelled word or errant comma undermine your point. If you’ve written a document on your computer, print it out. You’d be amazed how many times you’ll find a problem that escaped you on the screen. Pencil check –verify any statement of fact against original source material and check it off with a pen or pencil. You’ll have more confidence in the accuracy of the document. Finally, read your work backwards. Our brains anticipate what we’re going to read and can fill in information that isn’t there. Reading from bottom to top forces you to focus on every sentence.

I hope these tips help make you a more effective writer. I’d love to hear other tips and tactics you’ve picked up through the years. Please share them in the comments below.

Jonathan B. Cox, AICPA Staff.  Jonathan worked as a journalist for 10 years at both Bloomberg News in Washington, DC and The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. His reporting career took him all the way to Beijing, China, and on a tour of industries, including technology, telecommunications and healthcare.

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