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Career Development

Written Communication Skills: Definitions and Examples

February 14, 2020

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Nearly every job will require some degree of written communication skills, whether it’s sending emails, writing memos or providing briefs and reports. The ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and concretely in writing insures that everyone you work with understands what you’re telling them. Because written communication skills are so important in business, it’s worth taking the time to improve yours.

In this article, we’ll go over what defines strong communication skills and give you some tips on how to improve your own skills.

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What are written communication skills?

Written communication skills are those necessary to get your point across in writing. While they share many of the same features as verbal communication skills, there are some important differences. Where verbal communication uses body language and tone of voice to express meaning and tone, written communication relies on grammar, punctuation and word choice. Developing written communication skills requires practice and fine attention to detail. 

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Written communication skills examples

In professional settings, great written communication skills are made up of five key elements. Look at some examples of each of these elements below:

  • Clarity
  • Conciseness
  • Tone
  • Active voice
  • Grammar and punctuation

Clarity

Clarity helps your reader understand what you are saying or, at least, understand enough to know what questions they need to ask for further clarification. Clarity comes from writing in simple language and sticking to concrete, specific information:

Example: “We are implementing a new late policy to ensure that all employees can confidently rely on our agreed-upon schedule. See the details of the new policy below. If you have any questions, you may direct them to the head of human resources.”

The above example gets to the goal of the message right away, touches on the intention behind the policy change, and provides explicit steps to follow in case a reader needs further clarification. 

Conciseness

It’s important to get to your point quickly and efficiently. Include only the details that are necessary to communicate your point:

Example: “After reviewing the articles you’ve written for us, I’ve concluded that you are one of the most talented writers on our team.”

Concise writing, like that in the above example, helps maintain clarity by avoiding unnecessary details or overly complicated sentence structures. It also lends more confidence to your writing.

Tone

Tone refers to the “voice” of your writing. In business writing, your tone should be one of professionalism blended with varying degrees of formality and friendliness:

Example: “Thank you for sending this over. I highlighted a few inaccuracies found in this report and attached the latest numbers from our accounting department. Please get the revised report back to me by Friday afternoon. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.”

Even while communicating negative news, such as pointing out mistakes, avoid accusations or language that might make the reader feel singled out. You also want to be specific. Rather than saying, “This report is wrong,” identify exactly what you’re asking for.

Active voice

Active voice is typically more accessible and easier to follow for readers than passive voice. Active voice helps a sentence flow better and allows the reader to move through your writing at a quicker pace. Complex, passive voice has its place in other forms of writing, but it slows the reader down in professional communication.

Example: “All department heads have reviewed the proposal.”

Grammar and punctuation

How much you pay attention to precise grammar and punctuation will depend on how formal the writing needs to be. However, even in informal writing, grammar and punctuation are important for ensuring that your point is getting across.

Example: “The initial guide identifies the scope and framework of the project, breaks it down into milestones, and provides criteria for tracking progress and measuring outcomes.” 

Without correct use of commas, articles, prepositions, verb tense and other basic grammar, the sentence above would be difficult to understand. 

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How to improve your written communication skills

Here are a few tips you should keep in mind whenever you are writing anything, whether it’s a quick email or a detailed report:

  1. Know your goal before you begin writing
  2. Include only need-to-know details
  3. Make use of outlines
  4. Keep it professional
  5. Edit thoroughly

1. Know your goal before you begin writing

Having a clear goal in mind keeps your writing focused and clear. This goal might be to get the reader to take action, respond to your email, or to know of important information. Whatever your goal may be, you want to get to it as quickly as possible at the beginning of the message. Lead with the key point and follow up with the details needed to understand it. Organizing your message in this way gets the point across in a way that even readers who might skim through it will understand.

2. Include only need-to-know details

After you’ve written your first draft, read through it and ask the following three questions of every single sentence: 

  • Is the goal of the message clear and concrete? If you need a report or a project update, give a specific deadline rather than just vaguely stating that it’s urgent. State what specific details you expect that report or update to include. The reader should be able to immediately understand what you expect from them and when without decoding your message.

  • Is this detail necessary for the reader to understand the goal of the message? If you can remove a whole sentence and the reader could still figure out what they need to do, consider removing it. 

  • Is this written as simply and directly as possible? You’re writing to get the point across while leaving as little room for misinterpretation as possible. While a certain industry-specific term or bigger word might be more specific to the meaning of your message, if your reader doesn’t understand the nuance of its meaning and you do, consider a simpler, more accessible word choice.

3. Make use of outlines 

For longer texts such as a report, take the time to write out an outline to organize your thoughts and determine the best way to organize the information. Outlines can be invaluable resources as you write, because they ensure that you make every necessary point in a logical order. 

4. Keep it professional

Even if you’re just sending a quick email to one of your closest coworkers, avoid jokes or private complaints. The safest approach is to assume all written communications could be shared with the entire office. Before you hit send, ask yourself, “Is this email something you would be okay with everyone reading?”

5. Edit thoroughly

Read through everything two or three times. Besides proofreading for basic grammar and spelling, pay attention to how it sounds. Ask basic questions about the clarity and efficiency of what you’ve written, such as:

  • How does it flow? 
  • Does it make sense? 
  • Are there too many unnecessary details? 
  • Are there any missing details needed to understand the main point? Have you written it simply and directly? 

Then, save a draft and step away from it for a few minutes while you work on another task. Come back to it afterward and read through it again. 

A great way to build editing into your work routine is to write drafts of all the emails you need to send out. Then, once all the drafts are complete, go back to the beginning and edit each of those drafts before finally sending them.

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How to showcase your written communication skills

Written communication skills are essential at every stage, from getting the job to performing it to the best of your ability. Here are some occasions where you’ll show these skills:

On your resume

Your resume should be easy to skim and highly focused on highlighting your greatest accomplishments and your strengths. Rely on bullet points, lists and clear headlines. You want to use this as an opportunity to show your ability to communicate concisely and clearly. 

In your cover letter

Unlike your resume, your cover letter should be composed of more rich detail and well-constructed sentences. This is where you show your ability to weave details into a clear and engaging narrative. Tell your story with a clear purpose. Rather than a bullet point list of achievements, focus on one or two of your great ones and weave your accomplishments into a story that shows how your unique strengths and experience helped you achieve those outcomes.

In your job interview

While your job interview will be more about your verbal communication skills, you still want to make sure your responses are clear, concise and concrete. This will reinforce the impression that you know how to communicate with purpose and efficiency.

In your thank you letter

After the interview, you have one final opportunity to showcase your written communication skills. The thank you letter or email allows you to show your ability to balance professionalism and friendliness. Your thank you letter can show off your mastery of tone and your attention to detail.

In your emails

Most jobs today will require sending emails on a near daily basis. It’s important that your writing conveys your professionalism, credibility and friendliness. A well-written email is direct, specific, and provides clear next steps for the readers whether that next step is responding to your email, scheduling an appointment, completing a task or letting them know they can ask you questions they might have.

In your presentations and reports

Presentations and reports are the places where you and your team inform the rest of the company about what you’ve been working on, what you’ve achieved and what your goals and expectations are going forward. Doing that well means providing organized, easy-to-read reports that even people who might not be familiar with your department can understand. When writing for an audience outside of your own department, avoid terms that aren’t widely used outside of your own team. If you need to use specific terminology, make sure you take the time to include definitions and explanations.

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