(This post was originally published in 2019, but it is still remarkably relevant as I update it in January 2021.)
We’re going to talk about business writing skills, but let’s start with a more appealing topic first… Do you have an activity or interest that constantly challenges you to learn? Horses top my list. They challenge me to keep learning because they are also learning. Every time we master one thing, it simply moves us on to the next. Plus riding more than one horse means learning one thing in different ways. Even how they tackle the same obstacle (like the obstacle in the photos) can differ and I must learn these differences. (Opie pushes off with his hind end more while Chase seems to want to lift himself with his front end.) You’re never done learning when it comes to horses, and neither are they.
We’re never done learning as writers either, whether you’re a best-selling author churning out books or you’re responding to 122 emails per day at work. The difference now is that the nature of work is changing, and your writing skills at work matter more than ever. You can’t afford to ignore them. They say ignorance is bliss but in truth ignorance is expensive. And not recognizing the importance of good business writing skills will cost you.
Below we’re going to go into five reasons why your business writing skills must improve and then dozens—yes, dozens—of ways you can incrementally strengthen those skills on an ongoing basis.
5 Reasons Why You Must Improve Your Business Writing Skills by
Reason 1: We are living in the Learning Economy
What is the Learning Economy? It’s a time when you can’t stay stagnant and still succeed, or as Jeff Cobb says:
“In a Learning Economy, the process of learning is the fundamental driver of the system. Learning fuels innovation; it fuels change; it enables participants in the system to adapt so that they can sustain wealth and create new wealth.”
Learning is going to be key to future success. Michael Simmons goes so far as to say, if you’re not spending 5 hours per week learning, you’re being irresponsible. The chief and chairman of AT&T has told employees, “There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop,” adding that those who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning “will obsolete themselves with the technology.”
In this economy, learning is required.
Reason 2: Work as we know it is changing
The emphasis on continuous learning is changing the nature of work, but so is technology, especially Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation. Gartner predicts 2020 will be a big year for AI, with 2.3 million jobs created. And people sense the changing is coming. One in four Americans thinks their job will be eliminated in the next 20 years, while one in eight believes it will happen sooner, in the next 5 years. This will change the skills employees will need in the near future, putting more emphasis on so-called soft skills, which we’ll talk about below.
Reason 3: World, meet the 1099 economy
It’s not just that the nature of work is changing with this emphasis on the learning and the uncertainty of AI. Work as we know it is going away. In the near future, we won’t have the types of jobs we have now—at least not the way we have them. Tad Milbourn boldly claims, “In the future, employees won’t exist.”
We’re already experiencing this 1099 economy but it’s only the beginning. We’re used to companies like Uber with business models built on contractors. But even huge corporations like Microsoft use huge numbers of contractors who work alongside regular employees. In fact, 36% of people in the U.S. work at jobs other than the norm. And experts predict that over half the U.S. population of working age will be freelancing by the year 2027.
When most of us are our own bosses, we’ll need to be able to communicate well with words.
Reason 4: Writing (still) matters—and perhaps matters more than before
Those first three reasons together add up to reason 4: Writing skills still matter, and they will matter more as these changes come about, both because employers need employees with strong communication skills and because those who are going to end up self-employed will be on their own and will need these skills.
Sadly, business writing skills are often lumped into the category called “soft” skills because they aren’t a hard skill like coding or math. But if the word “soft” makes these skills sound unimportant, consider this: Philip J. Hanlon, the president of Dartmouth College, suggests we call them power skills instead because they are critical to success. As a Forbes article explains when describing Hanlon’s preference for the word power, “…the term ‘soft skills’ is a misnomer. Critical thinking, persuasive writing, communications, and teamwork are not fluffy, nice-to-have value-adds. They’re hard-won and rigorously maintained abilities that are better referred to as ‘power skills.’”
Reason 5: Your business writing skills are a boon to your career
Despite the importance of writing as a power skill, it’s lacking. Improve your writing skills and you’ll have a definite career advantage because these skills are in short supply. We have a college professor calling these power skills, yet employers can’t find enough candidates who write well. One in three recruiters thinks the soft skills of job candidates have declined in just the last five years. A recent study reports that four out of 10 corporations said college graduates lack the soft skills needed. And some companies are hiring more liberal arts majors than STEM majors to get employees with writing skills.
Yes, writing skills matter that much. Natalie Canavor, the author of several business writing books, is quoted at Forbes.com as saying “You are what you write these days.” Think about it: In an age when so much communication is done via text, not during face-to-face or even phone meetings, your writing is your brand, the way you work and communicate. Your writing is your everything.
The takeaway? Improve your business writing skills and improve your job prospects, whether you’re employed or on your own.
Take Charge with Dozens of Ways to Improve Your Business Writing Skills
The nature of work is changing, and we can’t be sure what it will look like in the near future. But one thing won’t change: You’re still the one in charge of your career and the development of the skills that will advance that career—or keep it stagnant. And your writing skills are high on that list…or should be.
Does that mean you must devote time and money to a business writing course? That’s an option, but not a requirement. You have dozens of ways you can slowly and gradually improve, many of which I’ve listed below:
Read, read, read
- One of the absolute best ways to improve your writing is to read good writing, whether it’s work-related or not, fiction or nonfiction, books or blogs.
- Subscribe to a well-written email newsletter on any topic that interests you.
- Carry a book with you. That way if you end up waiting for someone or with a few minutes of downtime, you can pick up the book instead of your phone.
- If you struggle to find time to read—and I can relate, so do I—try audiobooks. I use the free app Libby and my local library to listen to audiobooks on topics ranging from history to current events to mysteries to science. I can get through six audiobooks in the same time it takes me to read one print book simply because I can listen while cooking, gardening, driving or cleaning.
Write, write, write
- Writing is the other absolute best way to improve your business writing. So write. Start a blog. Keep a journal. Write out your plans for the day. Write down your thoughts at the end of the day. Write letters. Write notes. Volunteer for writing assignments at work.
- Google “daily writing exercises” and you’ll find all kinds of prompts and exercises. It doesn’t matter what you write, only that you write. It’s like any skill or muscle: The more you do it, the easier it gets and the stronger you are.
Tackle the writing of other people
- We are all too close to what we write and we lose our objectivity. So read what others write instead. You will learn how to spot ways to improve your own writing when you start to spot those errors in the writing of others!
- Brush up on your proofreading or editing skills and offer to read the work of your coworkers.
- Don’t have anybody else’s writing to read? Then read books and blog posts and articles with a critical eye. Read them out loud and see how they sound. Question the use of a word or the way a sentence or paragraph is structured. Ask yourself if the writer has argued their point convincingly or not. Look for ways to improve on their writing.
Take a class
- See what your local community college has to offer.
- Check with your chamber of commerce or local business association to see if they offer classes or workshops. If not, suggest that they do.
- Look for online classes. Yes, this is a shameless plug, but I am slowly creating classes on business writing, sales emails and marketing writing, and any one of these classes would help.
- Find online classes appropriate to your needs. While researching business writing courses, I found several that are more advanced (and costly) which is what some people need, but not everyone. Keep looking. Find the classes that meet you where you are in your skill level today. (And reach out to me if you’re looking for a certain kind of business writing course but can’t find it.)
- Use online tools like Grammarly and the Hemingway app, but use them with care. (See why I’m cautious about the Hemingway app.)
- Find an expert to follow. The Grammar Girl, a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty, helps with quick tips and a podcast.
- Try the Grammar Up app, which I have not used, but it gets a good review here.
- Use a thesaurus. I turn to Thesaurus.com on a regular basis to help me find just the right word, or to find an alternative word when I am repeatedly using the same one.
- Speaking of words, sign up for Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day to keep your brain open to new words.
- Google “how to improve business writing skills” and you’ll find plenty of tips to help you one project at a time. They are all the same advice, like know your audience, but if you’re stuck on just one big proposal, this kind of advice might be the right kind at the right time to walk you through the process.
Way back in 2015, blogger Julie Ellis listed the business writing skills needed by 2020. Pardon the pun, but the writing was on the wall even five years ago. And that means the time to act is now.
Pay attention to your writing skills and nurture them along. Identify your weak spots and look for ways to strengthen them. And recognize that your writing is a power skill, one that will see you through the changing nature of work in
2020 2021 and beyond. Keep working at your writing just as you do your passion, always improving your skills.
(Did you learn something useful? Then please share this post and help someone else improve their writing skills!)