Making anyone a better writer

Jan 09, 2006

When you talk with those folks who have really “made it” in this business, i.e., successful principals in successful A/E and environmental firms, they will usually tell you that being able to write was critical to them. So much of what we do requires writing— letters, proposals, reports, even e-mails— and yet most architecture and engineering programs require little or none of it to graduate. Back when I worked at Carter & Burgess (Fort Worth, TX) 20 years ago, we developed a quick, lunchtime program to help our people write better. I honestly think anyone could have benefited from it. It was kind of funny— after running a bunch of our professional staff through the one-hour-plus session, from that point on, my own writing would regularly be critiqued and edited by one or more of those employees, and would show up in my inbox, full of red pen comments. That showed me that they learned something! I honestly think that anyone can be a better writer. And writing WILL help anyone be more successful in ANY job in an A/E/P or environmental firm. Here are some ways to help your people write better: Teach them the basic five-paragraph “formula.” This is something that you should have learned in school but may not have. The first paragraph is where you tell the reader what you are going to tell them. It includes a topic sentence that lays it all out. The next three paragraphs tell them what you wanted to tell them. The last paragraph summarizes and tells the reader what you told them. It’s incredibly simple and can be expanded to make more than three points. It works for letters, presentations, proposals, reports, memos— you name it. This is what you need to teach your people! Start with an outline. When you start with an outline of what you want to write, it will make your job easier. You then fill in the places in your outline with the information that’s needed there. If more people started their writing projects with an outline, not only would they have less anxiety about their writing and get it done more easily, their writing would be easier to read and understand. Teach them to write like they speak. I am not suggesting that you spell “I don’t know” as “I dunno,” however, nothing is worse than a bunch of stilted language in a business letter or report. For example, why use “utilize” instead of “use?” “Use” is better. “Would you talk like that?” is the question I ask. If not, don’t write like that! Keep it simple. Don’t use big words to impress people. It will make you look stupid, not smart. Use some contractions. That’s OK— we aren’t writing English papers, for heaven’s sake! Watch out for simple spelling errors. I have seen so many people recently putting possessives on plurals for NO reason! For example, “We sell electric motor’s.” Why is there an apostrophe there? It’s a simple plural! The moment I see that unnecessary thing, it makes me think that the writer is illiterate. If that writer wants to bill me $150 an hour for his or her time, I am not going to think he or she is worth it! Read it after you write it. This is the simplest advice that anyone can take. Just read what you wrote and see if it makes sense. If it doesn’t, fix it! No one is perfect the first time around. I always do a little writing and rewriting. And if you don’t try to make it perfect the first time around, it’s easier to get it all out. You can easily ruin your stream of consciousness that is so critical to completing the writing task at hand if you are too detailed right away. Get your thinking on paper and then rewrite it. As with most disciplines, practice makes perfect (or practice makes “better!”). You have to write, and write a lot, to get good at it. It’s worth it to do so, however, and it will make you more successful. So what are you waiting for? Originally published 1/9/2006

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.