I was talking to my friend Sarah the other day, and she pointed out something that has been going on in my head for a while.
She launched her start-up a few years ago, and although it was a tight-knit team the first year, they have grown and are ready to hire new members.
After reviewing the first set of cover letters and correspondence with applicants, Sarah came to the conclusion that many people find it difficult to write.
I firmly believe that the best job offers don’t always go to the best candidates; they go to the best communicators. In fact, a survey found that 44% of managers felt writing was the most common difficult skill that recent college graduates lacked.
I believe everyone has a unique voice and can write effectively, but developing that voice takes practice, and often it requires you to give up some bad writing habits.
In the spirit of helping you become a more effective communicator, here are some writing red flags, some reviews of some grammar concepts that may trip you up, and some tips on how to communicate more effectively in your writing.
Know the distinction between commonly mixed words and phrases
I would say the most common handwriting mistakes I see happen when people confuse or overuse common words and phrases. To start our brief writing lesson here, check out this list of often mistaken or mixed up word / phrase uses:
Your you are:
- Your: this one is possessive, indicating membership.
“Your dog is so cute! “Could you please share your contact details?” “
- You are: it is a contraction that combines the words “you” and “are”.
“Please get me a seltzer if you stop at the deli.” “” You are the first in line! “
There / Their / They are
- The: it is an indication of place, or the introduction of information or the status of something.
“I’ve never been there.” “There are three routes you can take to get here”
- Their: this indicates possession.
“I have never met their dog.” “I am staying with them.
- They are : it is a conjunction of “They” and “are”.
“They’re going to meet us at the baseball stadium.” “They are getting married next summer.
This one is so common! It is really important to pay attention to these distinctions because they can really stand out.
- AT: This indicates the direction, or is the start of the infinitive form of a verb.
“I’m going to the deli.” “Do you want to talk later? “
- Too much: It can mean in addition, or as a modifier of an adjective, indicating greater extent.
“I would like to come too. “The car is too small to fit everyone. “
These are just a few of the most often mixed words. If you write a lot, it would be helpful to brush up on some of these other common confusions. Check out this list from the University of Illinois that digs deeper into commonly mistaken words.
One of the most common problems I see in writing is the presence of repeated sentences and long sentences that seem to wander from clause to clause.
For a quick reminder, let’s turn to our friends at Grammarly:
“A continuous sentence, also known as merged sentences, occurs when two complete sentences are overwritten without using a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation, such as a period or semicolon. “
If I had to write an endless sentence it might not jump out at you right away, but you would probably notice that weak writing and weak writing is really a buzzkill for employers.
… Something looks weird in my italicized sentence? You got it. It was a race-on.
Let’s try again:
If I were to write a relentless sentence it might not jump out at you right away, but you would probably notice the weak handwriting … and the weak handwriting is really a buzzkill for employers.
However, a sentence does not need to meet the exact definition of a run-on to be long and difficult to follow, especially if your sentence turns into an entire paragraph and includes multiple subjects and verbs, or many clauses. which are concatenated with commas. This creates a curvy voice that makes it difficult for the reader to follow your thinking, and it probably helps your writing sound a bit sloppy.
If that last paragraph was hard to digest, so much the better. It was the idea. You will notice that short, concise sentences are better for clarity. Ask Hemingway! He liked the brevity in his sentence structure.
Simplicity is your friend. Keep this in mind the next time you read something you’ve written. Cut out those big sentences!
Know the difference between active and passive voice.
Another important part of writing that many may not remember from English in high school is the difference between passive and active voice.
For a concise explanation of passive and active voice, let me share another definition, this time from American Journal Experts:
“At the most basic level, the active voice emphasizes the person or agent performing an action, in short, ‘the actor’. The passive voice emphasizes the recipient of the action or sometimes the action itself.
In writing this column, I generally aim to use the active voice. Here are a few examples to help you think about how you might rephrase sentences in your business correspondence:
- Passive: “The market report has been received and forwarded to Tom by me.”
- Active: “I received the market report and forwarded it to Tom.”
- Passive: “Team members felt some concern about the latest data set. “
- Active: “Team members were concerned about the latest data set. “
You all know I like to speak directly to my readers. But if I tried to avoid using personal pronouns in some type of writing, the passive voice might come in handy.
- Active: “I have noticed a lot of recent changes in the finance industry. “
- Passive: “There have been many changes recently in the financial sector. “
Let me simplify it even more … Active voice is generally a good choice for keeping things simple and clear. It is not explicitly wrong to use the passive voice, and there are cases where the passive voice makes more sense.
Still, when editing your writing, it’s a good idea to be able to recognize when sentences might be clarified by switching from passive to active voice or vice versa.
Remember that no active or passive voice is categorically wrong, but knowing the distinction and when to use either voice will definitely help you improve your writing skills.
To better understand the active and passive voice, check out AJE’s Deep Dive.
Remove the apologetic tone from your correspondence to create professionalism and authority.
It is time we stopped apologizing for so much. Many of us approach writing professional emails and correspondence as though we are always asking a favor or worried about bothering someone.
Let me give a few examples of what I mean. It might look like starting an email with “I was writing just because I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind terribly …”
Obviously that’s an exaggeration, but I think we could all win by removing all the excuses and getting straight to the point.
I think this trend is particularly bad for professional women. It’s an often-said adage that women apologize more than men, but it was actually proven in a scientific study of college students. The study postulates that women apologize more often because we have a lower threshold for what we consider offensive.
Let me tell you once and for all: asking for what you need to do your job is not offensive. Giving your opinion is not offensive. It is not offensive to be unavailable or unable to do something.
This apologetic tendency can really undermine women in the workplace, which is why I think it’s especially important to remove it from your business correspondence.
Let’s break down a few examples of this type of tone, and how you might eliminate excess verbiage and guilt from your correspondence:
I was hoping you could help me by forwarding the documents you shared with the Alpha Team, if that’s not too much of a problem for you. I apologize if you have already downloaded them. It would be a great help to be able to access it.
Thank you very much for your time!
Let’s try again, will you?
Could you please forward the documents you shared with the Alpha team as soon as possible? They may have already been downloaded, but it would be helpful to have access to them.
See? Nothing rude there, not an extraordinary request. Remember, it’s totally possible to be professional without too much apology.
As for me, I always try to transform my “sorry” into “thank you”. For example:
Instead of “I’m sorry, I’m not going as fast as you would like” I say “thank you for your patience”.
Hope this offers some ideas on how to improve your writing on a daily basis. These are just a few of the things I’ve been aware of lately in my interactions with writing from colleagues and clients. Becoming a great writer is a lifelong journey for those who feel determined to improve themselves, but everyone can benefit from a little extra editing time and feedback from trusted friends and good writers. .