Icing on the Cake: Easy Steps Toward Improving your Writing
Making a good first impression is essential when meeting clients for the first time. Making this impression often translates into practicing presentations in advance, preparing lists of questions, researching the client’s competition, and reviewing the client’s own internally-generated materials. In addition, however, there are other important actions we all take on a more personal level: we get haircuts; we dress up a notch or two above our usual jeans and t-shirt attire; we smile and engage in friendly conversation; and we extend firm handshakes to those we meet. These two lists represent substance and style, if you will. Neither is effective alone.
When you write, the same factors are in play. And, you won’t make a good first impression through your writing if you don’t pay attention to both. Yes, your writing should convey substantive information. But, if you don’t pay attention to how that information is presented, you risk it not being considered thoughtfully or read at all.
In this post I concentrate on the “style” aspect of writing -- the “dressing up” of your documentation for maximum effect. Below I suggest some tips for making a good impression with your writing that are easy to adopt.
- Insert page numbers and page count (the “Page x of y” format). It helps your audience know what they’re in for and lets them reference your information more easily for questions or comments.
- Date your document. It can be on the title page, in the header, or in the footer; but, the date that the document was generated often becomes an important data point and is often impossible to identify as time goes by.
- Use your spell-check tool, and thoughtfully consider its suggested changes. No spell-check tool is perfect; but, they are extremely helpful in identifying true misspellings and sentences that need an extra look. Pay attention to those red, squiggly underlines and resolve them -- especially if you’re sharing an electronic version of your document with your client in Word or Google Docs format where they, too, will see those squiggly lines. The client will draw the conclusion that you’re lazy or don’t pay attention to detail. Not good.
- Insert a table of contents for larger documents. For me, the threshold is about ten pages if you have multiple subsections. Use your best judgment. The point is to make it easy for your readers to find information important to them. Help them out! After all your hard work, you do want people to read what you wrote, right?
- Use consistent formatting throughout your document. Do you use solid bullets, with indented hollow bullets to call out important details? Do you suddenly switch to using solid square bullets or Roman numerals to do the same thing? Are you using different indents or tab stops from section to section? Stop it. It’s distracting to the reader, who does notice.
- Pick a spelling convention and stick with it throughout your document. Honestly, no one cares if you write “web site” vs. “website” … or use “sitemap” vs. “site map” … or “startup” vs. “start-up.” However, you should be consistent within the same document and spell the word the same way each time it occurs. If you think you’ve gone back and forth or have integrated content generated by multiple authors, use your “Find” function to locate all instances of the word in its undesirable form and replace them.
- Pay attention to punctuation. I’m not talking about knowing when to use a colon vs. a semicolon or a dash vs. a hyphen (perhaps covered in a future post on the more technical aspects of writing). I’m referring to easy changes that will make a world of difference in the impression you make. In lists, for example, be consistent in whether you end each bullet with a period or use a period only with the last bullet in a series. Be consistent with using or not using initial capitalization of bulleted statements. If you pose a question to the reader, remember to end with a question mark.
- Bold essential messages. Let’s face it, most readers will skim what you write. Help your readers by bolding the most basic elements of your writing, allowing skimmers to extract your important points and perhaps enticing them into actually reading what you wrote.
I can’t guarantee that the practices above will solve all your writing problems. I can, however, assure you that your readers will appreciate the effort you put into your writing to give it a level of professionalism they expect. The fewer aesthetic distractions will allow your readers to more effectively absorb your message. And, that, is a job well done.