Have you ever sent an email no one seemed to understand that ended up derailing the timeline for an entire project? Or written a report that you then had to explain verbally to everyone after they read it?
Even if you’re not in a job where writing is a core component of your professional duties, you probably use your writing skills every day to communicate with others through text (whether it’s over email or Slack, in a monthly or quarterly report, in the form of a project update, or otherwise). If fact, strong written communication skills are one of the top attributes employers look for, regardless of the job they’re hiring to fill.
There are a few different types of writing skills, and with practice you can strengthen them—and show them off in your next job search.
If you’re in a writing-centric or writing-heavy role—for example, marketing—you might already be aware of how your writing skills help you daily. But even if you aren’t in one of these jobs, “Writing is an essential skill in the workplace, especially today with more and more people working remotely,” says Muse career coach Jennifer Smith, founder of Flourish Careers. In an increasingly online world, “There’s less face-to-face interaction and more written interaction.”
Strong writing skills help you to communicate with others without having to schedule a meeting or phone call. They ensure readers understand the key points of what you’re trying to get across, come away with the ideas and impression you want them to, and, in many cases, take action to do whatever you’re hoping they’ll do.
“Most professionals have to craft business emails,” says Muse career coach Tara Goodfellow, owner of Athena Consultants. Emails might be how you update your team on a project, request information from a colleague, or how you follow up on a meeting with clear next steps. And in some instances, an email is how you make your first impression on a new person. For example, if you’re an account executive reaching out to a prospect via email or LinkedIn, “A well-written sales pitch to a critical client will increase your credibility and help you land the new client,” Smith says.
You likely also use writing skills outside of email. Maybe you put together presentations that incorporate text or need to write a report on the results of something you did or researched. Or perhaps you’re going on vacation and you’re writing up what you need your teammates or reports to know or take care of while you’re out.
Writing is something others can refer back to at any point—as opposed to verbal communication, which might have to be repeated and requires both parties to be available at the same time. Written records can be particularly helpful when you’re trying to standardize how your team or company handles recurring tasks or training new coworkers to take these on. “Clearly writing and documenting new procedures can allow for future consistency and improved quality control,” Smith says, even if you’re not available to meet with and explain the processes to each new person taking them on.
There are several types of skills that combine to make someone a strong writer, including:
Before you write a single word, you need to do your research about the topic you’re writing on. Gathering information that’s up-to-date and accurate is a key part of writing, and the process may help you figure out what content to include. Depending on what you’re writing, research may involve learning about your target customer—whether it’s an overall target market or individual company—evaluating sources for strength and credibility, talking to experts, reviewing and analyzing data, or talking to other members of your team.
Planning and/or Outlining
An outline is a pared-down sketch of what points or topics the document you’re working on will cover and how you plan to structure the information, which can give you a roadmap to follow as you write. Creating and following an outline ensures you’re incorporating all the important information in the right order and not being repetitive or straying too far from your point. It’s often easier to get outside input on an outline than to write an entire report or similar only to find out key information was missing. Outlining skills can also be used to map out a non-writing project ahead of time or plan a process, which can be especially helpful if you’re delegating to or collaborating with others.
Grammar and Clarity
Grammar is the set of rules governing language usage. It’s what guides everyone to communicate in a similar way and, as a result, understand each other more. There are many rules of English grammar, and you should definitely know the basic ones. But unless you’re a writer or editor, knowing the obscure little quirks of grammar usually isn’t necessary. What is necessary is knowing how to construct a clear, easy-to-read, and understandable sentence so you can communicate in writing.
Revising and Editing
Editing is the process of correcting and changing a piece of your own or someone else’s writing to strengthen it. You can revise or edit by making significant changes to the structure, organization, or content of a piece. Or you might proofread a piece of writing, checking for any misspellings, grammar mistakes, or typos. In other cases, you might be tweaking sentences or paragraphs to flow better or reflect a certain tone. Strong editing skills can be useful in a wide range of professional situations—from looking over a report or presentation for a teammate to spotting an error in an email you’re about to send the entire company.
Even if writing isn’t a core part of your job, you’ll likely use it to communicate in the workplace. This might mean composing an email, messaging someone on Slack or Teams, giving feedback, creating a meeting agenda, or giving an update on a project. Being able to communicate clearly through writing will help your work go more smoothly, increase the chances you get what you want and need from others, prevent misunderstandings, and allow your colleagues to feel informed and included—ultimately strengthening your professional relationships.
“Good writing can help you stand out and get ahead,” Smith says. So how do you improve your writing skills? Here are a few tips:
1. Brush Up on Grammar Basics
If you’re already feeling your eyes glaze over, don’t worry. Unless you’re a writer, editor, or similar, you don’t need to know whether it’s who or whom or when to use an em dash vs. a semicolon (and to be honest, editors don’t always know all these things). But you should know the basics: how to write in complete sentences rather than fragments or run-ons; how to use quotation marks and commas in typical scenarios; and when to use there, they’re, or their, to name a few.
There are a number of free resources online you can use to brush up on your grammar skills or answer individual questions, such as Grammar Girl and the content many dictionaries put out on their blogs. Or you might look into paid courses on platforms like LinkedIn Learning and Coursera. You can find plenty of free quizzes (like this one) to figure out your current level of skill and discover areas for improvement. There are also a number of books you can check out: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a classic—but still widely used and, more importantly, short—overview of the most important grammar rules, and Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner is a more modern guide written in a lighter tone.
2. Read (and Study) the Type of Writing You Want to Improve
One of the best ways to improve your own writing is to read a lot. Note what writing resonates for you and look at that writing closely to see how it’s put together. Is it using a lot of technical words? Is the tone conversational or more serious? Does the writer use a lot of short sentences, mostly longer sentences, or a mix of both?
Reading of any type can help you get a sense of the different ways all the elements of writing can combine effectively. But it can be particularly helpful to focus on the same types of writing you want to improve. Reading Shakespeare is great if you enjoy it, but it’s unlikely to improve your emails. If you want to level up your marketing copy, technical reports, or written sales pitches, those are the types of writing you should be studying most closely.
3. Pick the Right Format for the Situation
You have to quickly update your boss on what you’ve done in the last week. What’s the best way to do it? Are you going to open up a new Google doc and write a five-page report covering every detail? Probably not. You’re likely going to type up an email with a few short paragraphs or bullet points that hit the key points in a way your boss can read quickly.
On the other hand, if you’re detailing the findings of weeks of research, that five-page report might be necessary for your immediate supervisor or a teammate who needs to know about your process. But if you’re sharing those results with another department, it might make more sense to convey only the key takeaways or action items in a PowerPoint presentation with a few bullet points or short summary on each slide.
Knowing and choosing the correct format for a given piece of writing—based on your goals and intended audience—will give you the appropriate amount and type of space to share what you need to, and it’ll set your reader expectations correctly as well. Going back to the earlier example, if your manager sees a Slack message, they’ll expect that to take at most a few minutes to read, but if you send them a long document, they’ll be prepared to receive a lot of information (and might hold off on reading until they have the time they need to digest it).
4. Outline Before You Write
Especially when you’re writing something longer or particularly important, outlining beforehand can lead to a stronger finished project and make the process smoother. The best way to outline will depend on your personal preferences and what you’re writing.
In most cases, you’ll want to divide your outline into sections (whether those sections indicate chapters, paragraphs, slides, or anything else) and note what the purpose of each section is. Why is it being included and what question is this section answering for your reader? Once you know that, you can quickly note what information needs to go in this section of your piece. As you’re outlining, check that the order of your sections makes sense. Would someone need a bit of info or context currently slated for a later section to understand what you’re saying here? Move that info or section up in your outline.
If you have a number of points you’d like to hit but don’t know in what order or how they go together, an outline can be even more helpful. Write out each key point in a way that’s easy to move around—for example, a bulleted list in a Word or Google doc or even individual index cards—and start by grouping similar and related points together. Then, organize these groupings in a way that flows logically. If you’re not yet sure what your key points are, you can do the same exercise with all of the smaller pieces of info you want to include and form your key points once you see how all your information goes together.
5. Be Aware of Your Audience and the Appropriate Tone for Your Writing
To communicate well through writing, it’s important to understand who will be reading and what sort of language is appropriate.
Consider how formal your language is—if you’re Slacking a teammate, you might be able to be more relaxed in your tone and word choice than when you’re emailing a client or preparing a presentation for stakeholders. In most professional situations you should skip the emojis and avoid using multiple punctuation marks unless the situation really calls for it. “Rarely is ‘!!!!!!’ needed,” Goodfellow says. And don’t write in all caps unless you actually mean to yell.
Before you write, note the knowledge level of your audience as it relates to the topic. “If they are aware of the situation, they [may] not need a great deal of detail,” Goodfellow says. For example, if you’re updating other members of the engineering team on a feature you coded, you can use tech jargon and skip the background, but if you’re writing about the new feature in a blog post for customers, you might need to explain things a bit more thoroughly, choose more common words, and explicitly state why it matters to them.
Before finishing any piece of writing, take the time to reread it while accounting for the audience’s point of view. “Keep in mind that how you intend the email may not be how it’s perceived,” Goodfellow says. Tone is difficult to convey over text, especially humor—and you don’t want to imply an attitude you don’t mean. If you’re responding to an email chain, writing a comment on an ongoing thread, or in any way continuing a conversation, try to mirror the tone of the messages before yours, Goodfellow says.
6. Pay Attention to the Mechanics of Your Writing
Here are a few basic guidelines to keep in mind that will help make almost anything you write easier to read and understand:
- Don’t use complex words when simple words will do. If it looks like you used the thesaurus function every few words, it’s likely to distract your reader or make them lose focus. You’ll also end up with a disjointed tone, and you run the risk of someone not understanding the point you want to get across.
- Vary your sentences. If all your sentences are a similar length or follow the same structure, your writing can become a slog to read. “One common issue I see is every sentence starting with ‘I,’” Goodfellow says. Think: “I want [x]. I need [y]. I’d like [z].” It gets repetitive, and it’s easier for the reader to lose their place if everything looks the same.
- Use specific words and phrasing. Whenever possible, state exactly what you mean rather than using vague words like “things” or phrases like “and so on.” This practice will make your writing stronger and easier to follow.
- Don’t repeat yourself. When writing and speaking, it’s common to say the same thing multiple times in a slightly different way. Repetition can unnecessarily pad your writing and cause people’s attention to waiver.
- Eliminate filler words and filtering language. Words like “just” and “that” are often unneeded to get your point across and weigh down your writing. You should also take a look at any adverbs and adjectives you use to see if a stronger, more specific noun or verb will do the trick. Similarly, filtering language like “I think” or “it seems like” can weaken your message and make you sound less confident. The use of filtering language is especially common for women, who have been socialized to soften their opinions so as not to offend.
- Guide your reader through each of your points. As you move from one topic to the next, transition smoothly. If you spent the last paragraph talking about a project you completed last week and then you jump right to describing an upcoming project without a transition, your reader is likely to get confused. And for every new point, make sure it’s clear to your reader why you’re bringing it up and how it connects to the overall topic.
7. Get Feedback on Your Writing
If you’re looking to improve your writing skills, getting opinions from others about how you’re currently doing can be extremely helpful. You might not realize you tend to use the wrong form of “your” or that your sentences are way too long. But someone else might. It’s also common for individuals to use the same words and phrases over and over without realizing it. Similarly, you might think your writing is clear and to the point, but a reader might feel like there’s key context missing. As you get feedback from multiple people or on multiple pieces of writing, pay attention to any comments or critiques you’ve gotten more than once and focus on that area first.
Ask a teammate, manager, or someone else whose opinion you trust to look at something you’ve written and ask what would make your writing stronger. (If it’s someone you work with, it might be easiest to ask them for writing feedback on something they have to read anyway).
Depending on what kind of writing you’re looking to work on, you might also be able join a writing group or community where people trade writing and critique one another, Smith says. You can find writing workshops (both online and in-person) through universities and other community programs—they often cost money but come with an experienced instructor or facilitator—or you can find (usually free) writing groups online. Meetup.com and professional organizations are great places to start your search.
No matter what you’re writing, taking a last look to check for any typos or mistakes can save you a lot of headaches in the long run. Did you contradict yourself somewhere or leave the verb out of a sentence? Read anything you’ve written out loud if possible. Sometimes things look OK on a screen, but when you try to say them, you realize something’s not right. In a similar vein, you might also print out your writing and correct it on paper, Smith says. Often this is enough to see your writing in a different way, making it easier to spot errors. If the writing has higher stakes or the impression it makes on the reader matters a lot, try to get someone else to read it as well, Goodfellow says.
9. Use Tech Tools as Aids—Not Substitutes
There are plenty of programs and plug-ins that claim to “fix” your writing, such as WritingProAid, Sapling, Grammarly, and even the spelling and grammar checkers built into word processors. These tools can make it easier to write well, Smith says. But they shouldn’t be your one source of truth. Computer programs tend to miss key context that human readers would understand. “Spell-check can help but there are many words that are ‘correct’ but may not be what you intended,” Goodfellow says.
None of these tools should stand in for a thorough proofread. As a professional editor, I use tools like this to call attention to possible errors, but I always look at their suggestions before accepting them and consider whether they’re actually correct or clear. I also look carefully for errors the tools didn’t catch at all. Computer programs can easily miss homophone mix-ups, tense switches between sentences, incorrect word choice, and other issues. And sometimes you may need to write in a style these tools aren’t programmed to support. For instance, if you’re writing about investing, they might mark stock tickers and common financial abbreviations as errors.
If you’re applying for a writing-heavy job, you may be asked to submit a writing sample along with your application or complete a skills test at some point during the interview process. But you can showcase your writing skills at other stages as well, no matter what kind of job you’re applying to.
On Your Resume
Unless a specific type of writing skill, such as experience with social media copy or familiarity with a certain style guide, is listed in a job description or is clearly a big value add for a specific role, your writing skills don’t usually belong in your skills section—or at least, that’s not where recruiters and hiring managers will look for them. Instead, they’ll look at the way your resume is written to see these skills in action. Here are some guidelines to follow:
- Use correct and consistent grammar—no randomly switching verb tenses.
- Write clear, concise bullet points, taking care to choose specific words and strong, active verbs.
- Avoid vague or overused words. That means steering clear of contextless buzzwords, such as “passionate” and “synergized,” which might sound flashy but don’t mean anything on their own. And instead of words such as “managed” and “led,” Smith says, aim for interesting and creative—but still clear and specific—words the recruiter hasn’t seen a thousand times that day.
If you’re in a field where writing is a core component of your job, you can also link to writing samples directly from your resume even if you’re not asked for them to further show off your qualifications.
In Your Cover Letter
When writing a cover letter (and you should write a cover letter), you’ll want to follow all the same advice as when you’re writing a resume. But cover letters give you more room to really show off your writing skills. Rather than rattling off lists of qualifications you have, use your cover letter to write succinct but persuasive anecdotes that come together to tell a coherent story about why you’re the right person for the job. Choose past experiences that are relevant to the job you want and support your overall narrative. And make sure your sentences and paragraphs flow in a logical way and it’s always clear why information is being included. You can also inject more voice and personality into a cover letter than you can in a resume to give the reader the sense of who you are as a person.
Throughout the Interview Process
Of course, interviews aren’t often conducted through writing. In fact, unless there’s a good reason for it (such as a disability accomodation for yourself or the interviewer), an all-text interview process may be a red flag for a job scam.
But you’ll still be communicating with your prospective employer via email throughout the process. “Taking the time to craft well-written email responses is a fabulous way to make a solid first impression,” Smith says. “Recruiters and hiring managers will notice a difference between well-thought-out responses vs. rushed comments.”
Remember you’re being evaluated not just for your ability to do a specific job, but for your potential as a teammate. A coworker or direct report who communicates via email in a clear and professional way will make everyone’s work easier in the long run, whereas someone who’s hard to understand in writing might seem like a future headache they’ll have to address—especially if you’ll be communicating with people outside the company through email.