How to Write with Impact in the English You Speak
Last updated: 1 October 2020
As a business professional, you probably spend a large chunk of your working day and week writing emails, proposals, memos and so on.
The time you take writing depends very much on the message you’re trying to communicate in terms of its importance and the response you’re expecting from your reader.
Some emails may take you 5 minutes, while a sales proposal may take you 45 – 60 minutes. All this in your native language where you feel at your most comfortable, confident and articulate.
That all changes when it comes to writing in English, though. Instead of focusing on your message and structure, you spend an excruciatingly long time wondering which tenses to use or rummaging through your brain for the appropriate ‘sophisticated’ word to impress your reader. In the end, feeling exhausted and deflated you press the send button and hope for the best.
It’s all very unsatisfactory and you ask yourself if you’ll ever become a skilled, confident business writer in English.
Writing is not a talent. You’re not born a natural writer. It’s a skill and like all skills, it can be perfected through practice. The more you write, the better you’ll become. It’s as simple as that.
Before you get writing though, read on.
What you want
When it comes to writing skills, you want to:
➜ write like a native speaker (whatever that means)
➜ use a variety of words
➜ use more complex sentences
➜ be grammatically correct
➜ take less time writing
➜ enjoy the whole process
This desire leads you to spend the time you don’t have obsessing and stressing over your English. You browse umpteen English writing websites looking for that specific tool that will turn your writing into magic. But like in life, magic doesn’t exist.
The good news is that you don’t need magic.
What you need
What you need is to take your English and reflect and,
➜ be clear about why you are writing.
➜ think about who is your reader
➜ think about what information your reader needs to do what you want
➜ have a clear structure with a clear start and finish
➜ have a clear flow of thought
➜ use plain, uncomplicated English
➜ use your audience’s language
➜ keep it concise
5 essential questions
Before you put pen to paper, reflect on 5 questions – What, why, who, what and how.
What is your purpose? What outcome do you want to get?
Why do you need to write to them? Why is it important to you and your reader?
A phone call is too long; you’re writing to multiple recipients; the message needs to be documented; you’re looking to establish your authority.
Who is your reader? Are they your colleagues, stakeholders, clients? What’s their level of knowledge of the subject you’re writing about?
What information do you need to give your reader so they can do what you want them to do? Do you have it?
How are you going to deliver your message? What language can you use? Would specific language be appropriate?
Writing needs to flow. Your reader needs to follow the outline of your document and the connections between your ideas. Therefore, it’s important to have a clear structure to your thoughts. That requires planning.
5 planning techniques to structure your thoughts
➜ Brainstorm the content
➜ Select and reject
➜ Prepare an outline with the main points
➜ Expand on the details for each point by free-flow writing
➜ Keep to your outline
Now you need to make your thoughts readable, but here’s where the temptation or desire to write long, complex sentences kicks in. You want to impress your reader with your eloquence. But what happens, in reality, is that you get yourself all stressed out. But it’s not about you. It’s about getting your reader to give you the outcome you desire.
If that’s the case, you need to make it easy for them.
If you want your reader to follow your structure of thought, you need to keep your sentences short. Shorter sentences also mean fewer mistakes which is what you want. Shorter does NOT mean your sentences are simple.
Use a mixture of simple, compound and complex sentences to give variety to your writing. Study other emails and documents you receive and observe how the writer uses a mixture of sentences.
Use chronological (first, second, finally, then) and logical linkers (as a result, in contrast, in addition) to make your writing smooth
Paragraphs are essential for longer emails and documents. Each paragraph shouldn’t be more than 2-6 sentences and it should always start with a topic sentence. Use headings and bullet points to make your writing visually clear.
Space your lines out to make the email easier to read. Imagine when you receive an email which is tightly packed with hardly any spacing. You struggle to read it and probably bookmark it to read later.
Getting the style right
If your first language commands a more formal written style, emulating that style in English can be difficult. Formal English requires you to use longer words, be more impersonal by using indirect language and include more of the passive voice.
Most professional emails in English, which form the bulk of your writing, demand a more natural style. A more conversational style that mirrors your natural way of communicating at work with clients and colleagues.
This gives you permission to use the English you already speak and adopt it in your writing.
Of course, you do need to apply the appropriate style to your reader. For example, a very informal style to a client could raise questions about your professionalism.
Just checking in to see if you got my proposal.
What do you think? Any questions?
Let me know.
Did you get a chance to read the proposal I sent you?
I’d love to know what you think about it and answer any questions you may have.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Kind Regards/ Best wishes”
The style is professional and personal. It’s natural, and it’s to the point without being abrupt. The shorter and more direct sentences give your email the clarity your reader wants. It clearly states the reason for the email.
Use short words where possible. Instead of these: approximately, attempt, at this point in time, currently, for the reason that try these, about, try, now, now, because.*
It will take
approximately about 3 working days to get the order to you.
attempt try to call you in the next few days. At this point in time For now, we don’t know when we’ll have a completion.
My vocabulary is limited
That’s not a problem. If you already work with English in an international setting, you have more than enough language.
Use words you know. Plain, uncomplicated English is best. Resist the temptation to experiment with words you’re unfamiliar with. Your reader doesn’t have time to decipher the new words you ‘playing’ with.
Use vocabulary your reader knows. Avoid jargon unless it is expected.
Simplify and adapt your vocabulary if your reader doesn’t share your professional background.
Writing is not for you, it’s for your reader. Make the reading experience a pleasure.
A word about accuracy
“I want to be more accurate when I write.” Absolutely.
But you’re not referring to the accuracy of information. You’re referring to language accuracy.
“I want to use the right tense, the right punctuation (commas are so confusing), and my spelling has to be perfect.”
You’re so focused on language accuracy that it controls your writing when it should be the last thing on your mind.
Language accuracy is the easiest thing you can solve. And it doesn’t require years of study. All it needs is a reliable app like Grammarly. Download it and use it for every piece of writing and leave it to correct your grammar, spelling and punctuation.
It makes the editing process less painful and less time-consuming. It also gives you the peace of mind that your written document is correct. I use it all the time because, quite frankly, life is too short to spend over commas and semi-colons.
Writing with impact has nothing to do with having complex language or perfect grammar.
It has everything to do with having clarity of your message, its purpose, your reason and your audience. And you do that through reflection.
Writing with impact has to do with giving yourself permission to let your thoughts wander before giving them a structure.
Writing with impact is about communicating effectively. It’s about reflecting on what your audience needs from you and responding accordingly.
Writing with impact is taking the English you have and making it work for you.