How to Improve Your Written Communication Skills

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published May 4, 2021, updated October 11, 2021
How to Improve Your Written Communication Skills

Writing is an everyday activity for many people. So, you’d think that written communication would come almost naturally. Unfortunately, it is an ongoing challenge for writers and their readers. Messages can be misunderstood or missed entirely, even when they seem so obvious. Fortunately, there are many straightforward ways to up your writing game and become a better communicator. This article will explain why it’s so difficult to convey information in text and ten valuable tactics to improve your written communication.

Why is written communication so difficult?

Excellent communication in any format is easy to understand and allows the reader to respond appropriately. When we communicate in person, verbal communication dominates the exchange. However, these words are supplemented with non-verbal communication. The tone of voice, hand gestures, and body physicality can clarify messages, even when speech is not entirely clear. In parallel, the audience can immediately respond to the information with their own non-verbal communication. Looks of confusion or boredom tell the messenger that their material is not translating, and the speaker can adjust their efforts in real-time.

Alternatively, in written communication, the words have to do all the heavy lifting. If the reader furrows their brow in confusion, there’s no additional clarity available. Therefore, the entirety of the message must be conveyed through the text. That’s a big job.

A persuasive writing myth further compounds the challenge: fancier writing is better writing. Many writers have been led to believe that verbose writing with snazzy vocabulary comes across as clever. However, this writing style makes for poor communication. The reader often struggles to find the core message when it is meandering in excessive wording and jargon. Remember: the best writing is clear, direct, and concise.

Anyone can be an excellent written communicator with practice. To support your written communication efforts, we've outlined our top ten tactics to strengthen your written communication.

Ten tactics to improve written communication

Stop writing, starting thinking.

Effective written communication starts before you type your first word. To write clearly, you have to think clearly. Therefore, before you begin writing, step back, and align your thoughts on the communique. This process can be an internal thought process resulting in a rough outline for simple texts or a thorough mind-mapping exploration resulting in a structured framework for more complex work.

A common writing mistake is to work out your thoughts while writing the text. Expecting writing to clarify your thoughts is putting the cart before the horse. The writing process will take longer than necessary. It will result in a document likely confusing structure and message, required an extensive edit. Planning your written text will save time and produce better results.

Write for your audience.

Written communication follows the same rule as all communication: audience is everything.  As you plan your writing, take the time to understand for whom you’re writing. Why is she reading this document? What’s in it for her? What do you want her to do? How much does she know about this topic? Your written communication is not for you; it is always for the reader. Writing with the reader in mind will produce more effective written communication.

Tools are valuable but imperfect.

Writing tools, like Microsoft Readability Assessment or Grammarly, are great supports to improve your written text. These tools will alert you to errors ranging from minor typos to inappropriate tone. Yet, these tools are only tools. They are only as useful as the person operating them. Integrate tools into your workflow, but remember that you are ultimately the writer and editor. Tools do not catch all errors, and a careful eye is still required.

Keep it simple, silly.

In writing as in life, the simplest solution is generally the best one. The simplest, most direct way to write something is best. Don’t use eight words when two will do.  Aim for short sentences and short paragraphs to keep the information digestible and accessible.

Simplicity also applies to any request or call to action. If you’re writing to ask a colleague or friend to do something, be polite but direct. Some writers tend to sidestep a direct ask with meandering wording and conditional phrasing that water down the message. To ensure the request is conveyed, be direct.

State your assumptions.

Misunderstandings in written communication often arise from assumptions. As a writer, you may be required to make assumptions. For example, you believe that your reader has read the same report, received a certain work directive, or is familiar with the latest policy change. However, if these assumptions are incorrect, he may misunderstand and even take incorrect action. A strong understanding of the audience will minimize assumptions. They can be entirely avoided by stating any assumptions you make within the text. He can then make their own assessment of the context they need to understand the written message. 

Know that the first draft is a first draft.

Writing is an iterative process. Good writers do not produce great work on the first try. Good writers have a robust editing process that allows time for the text to become great. So, as you begin to write, acknowledge that this version is not the one your reader will receive. This thought process forces you to integrate time to edit. In addition, it can make a blank page less intimidating because even if your first iteration is terrible, it can always be improved.

Write and read often.

Writing, like any other aptitude, requires practice. Aim to write daily to keep your written communication skills fresh. If your regular daily work does not include writing, set a personal word count to achieve each day. Whether it’s 100 words or 1,000 words, consistent practice will hone your skills.

To gain inspiration, read excellent writing. Find writers or topics that intrigue you and enjoy the written word. Analyze a great article or report to understand what made it so accessible. Perhaps the article was structured particularly thoughtfully. Maybe the author’s variation in sentence structure kept the report engaging. Seek out first-rate writers and emulate your favorite practices (without plagiarizing, of course). 

Edit fiercely.

Editing is vital to improving written communication. Your draft text must go through a rigorous editing process to ensure that it is as clear as possible for your reader. Take a break from your document and re-read it with fresh eyes. Read the text out loud; if it’s awkward to say aloud, then the text requires revision. Look for excessive wording or repetitive sentences and sculpt them into a more cohesive thought. Review your text’s structure and see if the order is logical and appropriate.

If you’re unsure how to edit – ask for help. Solicit a friend or colleague to read the text for you. Their fresh viewpoint will highlight areas for improvement. Take their constructive criticism well because external feedback is the best tool to understand your writing and how to improve it.

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes.

At the risk of repeating myself: put yourself in the audience’s shoes. The audience should be top of mind in the final edit to assess if the text communicates the correct information. Return to the original prompt, whether it’s an email request or a proposal, and verify that the original goals are met, and initial questions are answered.

Actively look for reader misunderstandings. See if your sentences could be interpreted in different ways. If so, compose more precise phrasing. Spell out acronyms and remove jargon, even if you believe it is a common language. 

Don’t forget to proofread.

Editing is a process of transforming your text into the best version of itself. Proofreading, on the other hand, is a final check before written communication goes out the door. Proofreading is as critical for a brief email as a 280-page report because it makes sure the text is error-free. Look for typos, double-check names, verify grammatical consistency, and other steps to make sure that your well-edited document is final and truly ready for the reader.

Improved written communication has its benefits.

‘Excellent written communication’ is listed as a desired quality across disciplines and career paths. As more workplaces move online, written communication is becoming even more essential. Integrating these tactics will not only hone a high-value skill but will also strengthen your current interactions with colleagues and clients.

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published May 4, 2021, updated October 11, 2021
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.