Want to Be More Successful? Write Better. Here's How.
I wrote my way up. From an intern to a community manager to an entry-level sales rep to a manager to a senior manager to a director. But when I started out, I didn’t understand what writing was. At least, not in a professional sense. To me, writing was simply a way to communicate basic information. It was short bursts of words starting off with, “FYI…” “Just to let you know…” and “I don’t know if you saw this, but…” It was quick replies to brief questions: “Will do,” “Got it, thanks,” “Understood.” Regardless of if I was indeed going to do something, if I actually did get it, or if anything, at all, was understood. Man, I was lost.
Everything changed when ideas -- for better processes, how to motivate the team, and faster ways to scale -- began pouring out of me. The only challenge was I had nowhere to go with them. Catching the CEO for a few minutes became harder as we raised new rounds of funding. Conversations over coffee with colleagues was always helpful, but nailing down results that would actually lead to action was difficult. Everyone has ideas, and while that doesn’t mean all ideas are created equal, most ideas will never see the light of day because the one who thinks them often lacks the necessary tools to get them out into the world.
So instead of accepting defeat and grabbing beers with friends only to vent about how, “I have, like, so many ideas, man. So, so many ideas for how to do things differently. You don’t even know…” I wrote an email to the CEO. And when I received a thoughtful reply, encouraging me to move forward with my ideas, I began to write more. And more. And more. I would write emails to the CEO, to other senior employees, and anyone else who I believed could help me put my ideas into action, tell me they needed to be fleshed out, or just that they were garbage, but to keep going. I wrote weekly updates, detailing what was going well and what wasn’t. I surfaced issues threatening the business, paired with solutions, whenever they arose. I wrote it all. Because it was then I discovered that writing isn’t just a way to communicate basic information; writing is the execution of ideas through words. And the more you believe that the more you will be able to change your life in ways you may have never imagined.
“But what if I don’t have ideas?” you may ask. That’s fine because they will come. But even if they don’t, being able to coherently put a sentence together and present it in a way that allows people -- e.g. your colleagues, manager, or future employer -- to understand your thinking is a foundational skill that, “According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 73.4% of employers want.” Not only that, but, as Jason Fried, Founder of Basecamp, stated in his book, Rework:
If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. Their writing skills will pay off. That's because being a good writer is about more than writing clear writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else's shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate. Writing is making a comeback all over our society...Writing is today's currency for good ideas.
The challenge here is that, in the States, young adults aren’t gaining the necessary writing skills to thrive in college, no less a professional workspace. In a 2017 article for The New York Times titled, “Why Kids Can’t Write,” Dana Goldstein, writes:
Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class.
It’s no wonder that, as Kayleigh Moore states, “businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training -- annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees -- not new hires.” $3.1 billion.
What does this mean for you? It means we need to reconcile our relationship with the written word, no matter how proficient you may or may not be. It means we need to ask ourselves if the way we write in a professional setting is helping or hindering our efforts to rise. And, above all, it means we need to internalize the fact that better writing, while not being the end all be all solution, helps to even the playing field when office politics, favoritism, and other workplace ailments, like institutional racism, run rampant.
More specifically, it means you need to take your professional destiny into your own hands and put those hands to your keyboard. Write weekly updates detailing your progress, goals, and areas of improvement. When you have ideas, write and edit them, then send to your most senior colleague who can help put them into action, or at least see the effort you’re making. If you identify issues, write those down, paired with tangible solutions, and send those. And, if you’re in a workplace where email isn’t the norm, write all of the above on paper and put it on the appropriate recipient’s desk. Documenting all of this, and ensuring it gets into the right hands, will both help and protect you in more ways than one.
A few more tactical pieces of advice:
- Proofread your writing, and not just for spelling or grammatical mistakes, but for unclear thinking.
- Don’t write in large chunks containing enough run-on sentences to complete an ultramarathon.
- If writing an email, include a short, informative subject line.
- Make your writing pop. The last thing anyone wants to read is something unengaging, no matter what it is.
- When writing an update, frame it as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. And understand your updates form a larger narrative spanning weeks, months, and, possibly, years. You and your colleagues are characters in that narrative and what takes place in your professional workspace is the plot.
- If you need or want something, say it clearly. Writing, like our physical voices, takes on specific tones based on our intentions. Confidence is key when asking for something, but doubt is also okay when soliciting advice.
But most of all, just write. And write well. You’ll be surprised by how far it takes you.