Three simple rules for good written communication
One of the phrases that best illustrates the Dunning-Kruger Effect is this:
“I’m a great communicator.”
In my 30+ year career, I’ve met a lot of people who think of themselves as great communicators. In most cases, by “great communicator” they mean one of two things:
- “I talk a lot” or
- “I always include every possible detail”
The Dunning-Kruger Effect, loosely speaking, is a cognitive bias that makes people think they’re good at something they’re actually bad at. People who think they’re good at communicating often aren’t.
But this post is not about Dunning-Kruger. It’s about simple rules for good written communication.
Here are three of mine.
Rule #1: Value the reader’s time
More words does not mean better communication.
In fact, just the opposite is true. The more words you put in, the more work I have to do to figure out which ones you want me to care about.
“Omit needless words.”– William Strunk, Jr.
When I get a long email that could have been a short email, I know that the sender values their own time more than they value mine.
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”Mark Twain
If you save yourself five minutes by sending out a long, rambling, poorly thought out email, you may cost your reader five minutes of time trying to decipher it. Sounds like a wash, right? They probably do the same to you, so even though it’s selfish and inconsiderate, I guess it evens out over time.
But this rule is multiplicative. If you save yourself five minutes and send that same email to 20 people, you’ve wasted 20x of other people’s time.
Rule #2: Don’t equivocate
Lazy writing exposes lazy thinking. It usually indicates one of three things:
- The writer doesn’t really understand what they’re talking about
- The writer doesn’t believe what they’re saying
- The writer is trying to deflect blame or dilute accountability
Write with conviction. If you can’t write something with conviction, then you may not be ready to write it.
What do I mean by writing with conviction?
Own your words.
Don’t hide your main point in corporate-speak or wandering description. If the project is a week late, say “the project is a week late.” Don’t say “there have been impacts to scheduling due to multiple deliverables still in process.” The truth will come out one way or another; why make everyone drag it out of you?
Be clear about the truth and don’t disguise it with qualifiers. Instead of “I’m a little worried about that,” simply say “I’m worried about that.” Equivocation dilutes meaning and may decrease your reader’s trust in you and your message. Removing equivocations also forces precision in word choice. If you’re not actually worried about something, you won’t say “I’m worried about that.” Equivocations are often used to avoid the more important, but more difficult, conversation that is needed.
Write in active voice.
Passive voice is useful in certain instances, but you should strive to write in active voice. That is, instead of “an estimate has not yet been generated,” write “I have not yet generated an estimate.” Put the actor first with their action, rather than hiding it in a roundabout structure. (And get to that estimate already!) This rule especially applies to your own accountability. When people use passive voice in business communications, I usually think they’re trying to deflect blame or downplay something unpleasant.
Rule #3: Don’t decorate
Write your communications in plain, undecorated text.
Decorations like bold, italics, colored text, underline, and highlighting disrupt rather than focus.
They draw the eye and break up the reader’s attention. Even when the reader is looking at other text, the decorations keep drawing the eye away. It might be happening to you right now.
When there’s just one decorated item in a communication, it stands out as the single most important point. Highly effective when used sparingly and with clear intent.
When you use a lot of decorations, however, they act like a tourist map. The interesting bits hog all the attention, and everything else gets ignored.
I refer you back to Rule #1. If something can be safely ignored, remove it.
Once you remove all the ignorable junk, you can also remove the decorations.
Because once everything should be bold, then nothing needs to be bold. You’ve made every word important.
Good written communication is hard… but not magic
So remember these three rules:
- Value the reader’s time
- Don’t equivocate
- Don’t decorate
This may all become moot once everyone starts using ChatGPT, Bing, and Bard to write all their content. Until then, please try to be one of the good communicators, not just one of the people who think of themselves as a good communicator.
People tell me all the time that I’m a good writer. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I’ve put in my 10,000 hours several times over. Still, I think a lot about how my previous work could be better.
Maybe someday I’ll write something so good that I don’t think it can be improved. But I hope not. I’m constantly learning from my own work.
What rules would you add?
I have many other rules for good writing that I’ve made or collected over the years.
What rules would you add to the list?