Nick Westergaard

Nick Westergaard

As a communication instructor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, I look at a lot of writing. Recently, while grading an executive summary assignment (students were asked to summarize an article for a fictitious superior) a couple of papers inspired me to leave a comment I hadn’t made before: “This looks great!”

Always editing my own writing, I puzzled over the new comment. This looks … great? What does that even mean? I needed to clarify with a follow-up statement. Proposed edit: “This looks great. I want to read more.” That makes sense.

It makes sense because what your writing looks like matters now more than ever. Our inboxes are all too full. Our Facebook feeds are bursting at the seams. For long posts, social media prompts us to “see more” when really that’s the last thing any of us wants. And yet writing in all forms — especially email and other digital formats — is how most of us accomplish what’s asked of us at work. If you think about it, you’re probably writing constantly throughout your day.

Conventional wisdom cautions us not to judge a book by its cover but that’s exactly what we do day in and day out. Your audience doesn’t have time for your sloppy, rambling, intimidating wall of text. To draw your reader in, make sure your writing is easy on the eyes. Here are four steps to better looking writing that your audience will want to read more of.

Focus

Get to the point — early. Journalists aren’t the only ones who need to be reminded not to bury the lede. Whether it’s executives looking to sound professional or engineers and academics striving to be technical, too many write toward an ever-elusive main point. Before you start your stream-of-consciousness typing — stop. Ask yourself, what’s the point? Why am I sending this? Use that answer as your lede or topic sentence. What does this have to do with better looking writing? When you lead with the main idea, the rest of your points will fall into place in a clear and concise manner. And if they don’t …

Edit

Like the word processor and desktop computer, today’s digital tools such as email and smartphones have revolutionized the way we communicate at work. Ironically, these tools have accomplished this while also making us worse at writing. We have spell check but don’t use it. But that’s indicative of a bigger problem. We don’t edit.

As Anne Lamott says in her writing classic Bird by Bird, “The first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up.” In our first-draft/inbox-zero culture we skip Lamott’s advice and blast past clarifying and simplifying our sentences. You have time to take one more pass through that email you just wrote. And when you have short, simple sentences you can …

Chunk

No, I’m not channeling the classic character from The Goonies (though a Baby Ruth sounds wonderful). I’m getting to the heart of what your writing looks like. Without a doubt, the least attractive writing—whether a simple email or a lengthy report—is the overwhelming, unrelenting full-page paragraph of text. Once you’ve finished editing, lean back and let your eyes fall out of focus. Don’t read your draft—look at it. Do you see a solid wall or trim blocks of text bordered by ample white space? Sorry but your annoying designer friends are right. White space isn’t just a pretty garnish. It’s an essential communication tool that keeps your reader moving.

If you have those angry page-length graphs, chunk them out. Find the common ideas and hit ‘return’ (like I just did). Even if it’s a one sentence paragraph. Bullet points are also useful tools for chunking out your writing. Plus, they provide even more white space. And you always want more white space. Finally …

Accent

Once your writing is focused, edited, and chunked, guide your reader to what’s most important with judicious accenting in the form of boldfaced text. Call out your chunks with bold subheadings. If your bullet points are edited but still wordy, set each one off with a boldfaced introductory clause. You can even come full circle boldfacing your lede or topic sentence. Like spices and seasonings, these accents should be used sparingly. When everything is bold (or capped or italicized), then nothing is bold.

When I think back on those standout writing assignments, it’s clear that all four of these steps had been followed. If you put them to work in your emails, memos, reports, and digital content, you’ll create good looking writing that your overwhelmed audience will actually want to read.

Writing that’s easy on the eye is refreshing and makes you want to jump in.



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Dorie Clark, Author of Stand Out and Reinventing You, Professor at Duke University Fuqua School of Business