Writing effectively is a critical leadership skill. Leaders concerned with liability issues recognize that the written word provides a level of protection. Documents demonstrate that management issued guidance on a particular topic at a specific time so after that, everyone should know. However, if the only reason you are writing is to cover your ass, then you have lots of other leadership issues to deal with. Writing is one means of communication with others. It should be part of a system of communication in toolbox. Writing complements other forms of communication and should never be the only means used by leaders. Effective writing requires practice, a clear understanding of the message by the leader, simple words and sentences (unlike this one), and revision.
Effective writing communicates a clear message to the reader after the first reading, and is generally free of errors. There are a ten principles good writers use to communicate effectively. The first and most important principle is to clearly understand your central message. The central message for this essay is how to communicate through writing as a leader. I can communicate that with one sentence, as I just did, but one sentence fails to provide enough information for you to write more effectively. The main message requires supporting points; do not confuse the main message with supporting points. Each sentence and paragraph supports your central message.
Like any skill, the more one writes, the better one writes. However, like other skills, writers need feedback from others, so they understand how to improve their writing skills. In my work, I wrote thousands of reports, proposals for programs, grant applications, press releases, training material, personnel evaluation reports, memorandums on a wide variety of topics, and other documents. Every product was reviewed at least by the intended audience. Most were proofread and edited by someone else before the intended audience read them
Reading is another way to learn to write better. Read a variety of things, fiction and non-fiction books, newspapers, professional journals, and manuals. Each genre expands your understanding of what works and what does not. The examples you understand best serve as a model to follow.
Use active voice. Active voice shows the subject completing an action. For example, “Managers file bad weather reports with the Safety Department when it snows.” In this sentence, the reader knows who completes the action, when, and with whom. “Bad weather reports are to be filed with the Safety Department when it snows by Managers.” In the passive voice example, the important person required to file the report is the last word of the sentence. The active voice sentence is 25% shorter. It is easier to read and understand.
Organizations often write policies and procedures in passive voice. People fail to understand who does what, when, where, how, or why. If you write to cover your ass, and your writing fails to communicate who is responsible to act, are you covered? Use active voice when writing to improve clarity.
Be concise. I read somewhere Thomas Jefferson began a letter to a friend apologizing for the length of the letter. He confessed he lacked time to make it shorter. While this idea sounds backwards, it applies to the first principal I introduced of clearly understanding your central message. Jefferson is well known for writing the Declaration of Independence. The ideas in the Declaration are clear and concise. Once you really understand what you want to say, you can say it in fewer words.
Be specific in your writing. If you want the shift supervisor to do something, say, “The Shift Supervisor does the following things…”. Specificity requires authors to understand their message. Are you starting to understand why the first principal is so important?
Use the right words without unnecessary repetition. The right words are short. I learned this lesson in a class on documenting force taught by John Blum. As we went through his writing class, he frequently stopped and edited the text on his slides to match what he was teaching. If I found a one syllable word to replace a longer word on the slide, he replaced it in class. We were not John’s first or last class; again, the importance of revision.
Keep your sentences short. I recently proofread an award application. I found a problem with the subject-verb agreement in the first sentence of a paragraph. As I tried to figure out what who in the sentence was acting, I realized the paragraph was one sentence. I broke down the points and ended up with five, shorter sentences. The subject verb problem disappeared.
Arrange your supporting points logically. The Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address are memorable. Both use relatively short, supporting points presented logically. You must understand what you want to say before you can tell others. Use outlines and revision to logically arrange your supporting points.
Revise and edit your writing. Revision starts by creating an outline. Outlines help you understand what thoughts are your main message and which are your supporting points. Outlines also help create the logical order for your document. Write your first draft. Put it away. Sometime later, return to your draft, revise and edit it. Begin revising by ensuring your main message is clear and supporting points support that idea in a logical order. Identify ways to say something better, shorter. Look for gaps in your logic. Check spelling, punctuation and grammar. Use software for this task. Skipping the revision step results in confusion, unnecessary errors, and failure to effectively communicate with readers.
Leaders must write well. Writing is only one means of communication. Writing supports other methods of communication. Communicate one idea in your writing, so readers easily understand your message with one reading. Using active voice improves understanding of who does what. Short words and sentences communicate ideas better. Clearly specify details. Choose the right words and avoid unnecessary repetition. Present your supporting points logically. Revise, revise, revise. Follow these steps to improve your writing as a leader.
- Axelrod, R. & Cooper C. (2008). The St. Martin’s guide to writing. (8th Ed.). Bedford/St. Martin’s. Boston, MA.
- Bates, J. (2000). Writing with precision: How to write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood. Penguin Books. New York, NY.
- Blum, J. (2014). Documenting police use of force. Seminar. Orleans, VT.
- Shinseki, E. (Army Chief of Staff). (2002). Preparing and managing correspondence. Department of the Army. Washington, DC.
(c) Christopher St. Cyr 2023