The 5 easiest ways to improve any document (even if English is your second language)

International communicationVery often, people who struggle with business English as a second language assume all their problems stem from the fact that it’s not their native tongue.

But the truth is that many native speakers share the same problems.

That’s because there are five fundamentals of good writing that apply to all documents, no matter what subject you’re tackling or language you happen to speak. What’s more, not one of these fundamentals concerns avoiding technical errors (important though that absolutely is).

That means that learning and applying these universal truths is a quick win: it will immediately and dramatically improve your writing.

First, focus on your reader

The most important thing about a document isn’t your agenda. It’s your reader.

Keep your reader (or readers) at the front of your mind at all times. The more you do this, the more likely you will be to write something that achieves your goals.

Nobody wants to read things they’re not interested in, that aren’t relevant to their job or that they don’t have enough background to understand. So if you focus mainly on your needs and forget your reader, it’s highly likely that they’ll ignore what you’ve written. Even if they do read it, they’ll probably either forget it instantly or fail to do what you need them to do.

Yet all over the globe, people fall into this trap millions of times a day, even when it’s completely avoidable. It’s why so many documents get skimmed, skipped and ignored: they weren’t written with their readers in mind.

The good news is that you can avoid the problem without having to learn a single new grammatical rule or concept. All you need to do is step into your reader’s shoes. You can use this free reader-centred writing questionnaire to help you.

[Want more practical, actionable techniques to improve everything you write at work? Try Emphasis 360, our online business-writing training: short, interactive lessons to help transform everything you write at work. Try a lesson for free here.]

Signpost your document clearly

Any newspaper or magazine published in a language you don’t understand initially looks like page after page of indecipherable print. But look again and you’ll see elements that are common to all popular publications: headlines, subheads and picture captions.

That’s because, regardless of our native tongue, we’re all human and therefore subject to the same human limitations and distractions. Editors the world over know this. So they all use the same techniques, first to gain our attention, then to keep that attention by making it easier to keep reading than it is to do anything else.

Turn back to a newspaper in your own language and you’ll also probably see that the headlines (the equivalent of titles in professional documents) are written to appeal to the readers and their interests (whether they admit to having them or not). Notice too how the subheadings are designed to pique your curiosity and – when read in sequence – often summarise what the article is saying.

You can take advantage of this in your own writing, by using these elements in a similar way. This is no trivial matter: it could be the thing that prevents your most valuable ideas and research from being ignored.

It also makes a document look less intimidating for a reader. So, next time you end up with a wall of text, start separating it out with subheadings. Favour specific subheadings (eg ‘A good start to the year’) over generic ones (eg ‘Results for first quarter’). If you can, word them so that, read together, they tell a story and summarise the document.

Communicate one idea at a time

A common cause of errors and misunderstandings is trying to load too many ideas into the same sentence.

This rule also applies just as much to native English speakers as it does to language learners. Longer sentences are bound to be more complex, so they’re more difficult to write and to read. Making them shorter will therefore make life easier for both you and your reader, so everybody wins.

How long is long? Well, once you go beyond about 35 words (or use more than three commas), sentences become troublesome for everyone.

They’re harder for you as a writer to keep error-free. But even more importantly, they’re harder for your reader to follow.

The more ideas you stack into a single sentence, the less distinct any one of them will be. Shorter sentences, each containing a single new idea, are much more effective at making your ideas clear.

Write a strong beginning …

Here are two introductions to a document:

This document has been written with the intention of giving stakeholders in the company a better understanding of increases in profitability.

Ten years ago, our annual net profit has been just over six per cent. Now that number has almost tripled.

The first is grammatically flawless. The second uses an incorrect version of the past tense, a common mistake that people who speak English as a second language make.

But, despite its grammatical failings, the second introduction is still better in a key way: it grabs attention and makes you want to keep reading.

What makes introductions succeed or fail is as much your ability to pick out something that will hook the reader (eg 80% of our revenue has come from just four clients) as the technical correctness of your writing.

Whatever you’re writing, an arresting introduction is critically important. The introduction is one of the most important parts (arguably the most important part) of any piece of writing. So it’s worth learning how to write a good one, as well as focusing on improving your technical knowledge of English.

… And a memorable ending

Likewise, don’t just let your document trail off into nothingness. Too many people just stop writing when they’ve nothing else to write. This is a huge mistake and a lost opportunity.

We remember beginnings and endings much more than we remember what lies in between them. (This is a well-established principle of psychology called the Primacy and Recency Effect.) This means that, as well as starting strongly, you need to finish that way too. Many people struggle with doing this, so we’ll make it the topic of a separate blog post soon.

Success has never just been about getting everything error-free. But it’s so tempting to use that as your baseline, rather than focusing on achieving the task you wanted to achieve. That task could be as simple as reminding a colleague that they have a meeting tomorrow morning or as complex as convincing a government department to award you a £20 million contract.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should ignore errors or fail to strive for accuracy. Just don’t think that that alone will produce a successful document. And, if English is not your first language, take comfort from the fact that native speakers need to work on this every bit as much as you do.

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