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20 May 2008

Writing well: An absolutely critical aspect of business and personal success

When I was a freshman at Fairfield University, I wrote my first paper for my core history course. I thought I did a pretty good job. When it was returned, however, I was shocked at the grade I received. Let’s just say that it wasn’t the “A” that I was expecting. I remember feeling so appalled that I went and spoke with the professor directly. He politely told me that while the content of the paper was very good, my writing was lacking. Lacking? No one ever told me my writing was lacking before. He challenged me in a variety of ways and suggested that I read some articles and books about the preferred styles of scholarly writing. So I did. The next paper I wrote received a similar grade to the first. I was again disappointed and again I went to speak with this professor. He told me that things had improved slightly, but I still had some work to do. It turns out that this professor, Dr. David McFadden, became my favorite instructor, academic adviser and trusted friend over the course of my four years at Fairfield. It took me almost four years to get an “A” from him on one of my assignments. I remember that when I did, he was almost as excited as I was.

So why do I share this story with you?

It’s simple really — the ability to write well is important in today’s business environment. I have learned many lessons about business during the course of my career. I have taken and have also designed and presented courses in sales skills, goal setting and relationship building. All of these are important, but one skill is more important than any of these, at least in my opinion. It is the ability to write professionally and effectively. I am often amazed at what I sometimes read.

Sales pitches and other solicitations come across my desk all the time. Some are written very well. Others are “lacking.” If you want to stand out from your competition, learn how to write well. Learn that in business writing — less is more. That’s right — you need to learn how to effectively communicate your message using fewer words. People in business are busy. They simply don’t have time to read a lot of gibberish.

I’d like to say a few words about e-mail. It’s obvious to anyone who is paying attention these days that e-mail has become the preferred way to communicate with coworkers, business associates and clients. But some people have become lazy with e-mail. Messages are riddled with abbreviations and unprofessional conduct. All written communication should remain consistently professional and scholarly. This is true even if you’re not writing a paper for a college course, you’re not preparing a report for your boss or you’re just sending an internal e-mail to members of your staff. I am much more inclined to do business with a person who writes well and communicates effectively than with someone who doesn’t.

Here are some tips on becoming a better writer: (1) Use spell check, (2) Realize that the synonym suggestions from Microsoft Word aren’t always appropriate, (3) Use proper punctuation (refer to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style for clarification), (4) Before you send anything — proofread it! Read it out loud to make sure the context and diction are right, and (5) Leave all of the abbreviations and slang OUT of your professional writing.

I was recently asked by Fairfield University to participate in an alumni survey. It asked a lot of questions about my experience at Fairfield, my career path, etc. One of the questions asked me to identify the one aspect of the curriculum at Fairfield that I have found most useful. I didn’t hesitate to answer that question as follows: “Without question — the lessons I learned about research and writing. The importance of these two things in the business forum cannot be overstated.”

I have thanked McFadden many times during the years for the lessons he taught me on the importance of being able to write well. It might have taken me a long time to earn that “A” from him, but I finally did it. And it was worth the wait.
Don’t wait too long before you realize how important it is to write well. It’s important to your success and to your customers.


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