Imagine you are a human resources staff member, or an admissions officer at a university, or a grant manager at an aid organization. Imagine one of your main work responsibilities is to read an enormous amount of written material.
A specific computer program may help a recruiter narrow down a list of candidates suitable for a job, but she or he might still need to read through 50 job applications every single day. An admissions officer needs to decide how many candidates their university should accept – and which ones. A grant manager, looking through numerous applications from organizations that are seeking grant funding, will be searching for truly compelling and well-written proposals.
I talked to a friend who works in HR who said she looks for concise, clear, easy-to-understand job applications that are also “a pleasure to the eyes” and are “compelling to read.” She tends to ignore applications that are too long, too short, too wordy or too hard to read – either because the layout is bad or the text is filled with grammar mistakes.
Even one single grammatical error could hurt the recruiters’ eyes. It suggests the applicant doesn’t pay attention to detail or care about communicating well with others… among the two most important “transferable skills” that recruiters always look for.
I also spoke with someone who works as an admissions officer in a graduate school. She said most of the time she has to assess a large pool of candidates with similar academic credentials but can only admit a small number of them. What she does is look at their essays and personal statements. A compelling, well-written story could make all the difference. And if it’s the difference between acceptance and rejection, that will have a huge impact on a candidate’s life.
Good writing shows that a candidate not only has the intellectual ability that is reflected in their GPA, but also can communicate their ideas to others.
Meanwhile, if you’re trying to get a job, good writing skills will make you more desirable to employers. An interesting cover letter could lead to an interview. Clearly written emails make you seem more intelligent and responsible. Even excellent and very famous public speakers also need to communicate well in writing: they still need to write their speeches, send professional emails, draft presentations and put together well-written business proposals.
Another friend of mine is an editor for an oil and gas company, and he told me he is always amazed that so many of the engineers and managers there are bad writers, even though they are very smart people. And the few who write well are often the ones who get promoted to higher positions.
All these situations show just how important it is for us to acquire good writing skills for both our professional and personal lives. Good writing skills can help you tremendously in life.
This may seem like bad news to anyone who feels like they were born a bad writer. Fortunately, good writing is a skill that can be acquired. Think of it as a muscle that needs to be built up. The “writing muscle” needs to be exercised again and again.
I have spoken with people of many different kinds of professions who, at the same time, are also good writers, including one doctor, one dancer, a student, a PR rep and a musician. I wanted to find out what simple steps can be taken to help people improve their writing. Here are at least five.
First, before you write, always try to define the purpose of your writing. Is it to tell a story? Is it to describe an event? Is it to argue a point? What do you want to achieve by writing your piece? Having a goal will help structure your writing with clear ideas, making them focused and not scattered all over the place.
Second, you need to know your audience or readers. Different kinds of audience may require different styles of writing. One thing is sure: you need to engage your readers. You need to make them “like” you through your writing. For example, imagine you’re applying for a PhD program and need to write a research proposal. You need to think about who your readers are: are they the admissions officers and professors of that specific program? What do they want to learn from your writing and what will spark their interest? Try to put yourself in their shoes when you try to answer these questions.
Third: read. Read a lot. Read good writing. And read some bad writing too. Learn to tell the difference. When you find writing that seems bad to you, try to figure out exactly why. Then look at your own writing and try to see how your style compares with the writing styles of others.
Fourth, try to write in an engaging way. Remember, you want your readers to read what you write. Writing, just like speaking, is a form of two-way communication and your ultimate goal is to get readers to “really listen” to your writing. Think back to that recruiter in HR who has to read 50 applications every day, and ask yourself: “What can I do to make my application stand out from the crowd? What can I write to ensure the recruiter will not just skim through my papers and then toss them into a garbage bin?” Honestly, if a piece of writing is not interesting no one will want to read it. Keep your writing focused. (It can be all to easy to get side-tracked.) And always try to be direct and to the point, even while trying to do so in an engaging manner. When you are confident in your writing skills, whether it’s for a business proposal or just a friendly email, your confidence will come through in your writing and that alone will make a strong impression.
Last but not least, ask for feedback. Engage a certain group of friends or acquaintances to provide you with valuable input and constructive criticism. But be wise and choose your critics carefully. For example, if you want to write a feature article in English about tourism in Indonesia, try as hard as you can to ask for feedback from people who are native English speakers. If you don’t know any, try to find people who you know are good at English.
Whatever you do, have fun playing with words and sentences. Perhaps you can think of it as a puzzle or a game. Writing well can be hard to do, sometimes, but it can also be fun.