By Howard Birnberg
Project managers regularly prepare a wide variety of written materials. Reports, letters, proposals, change orders, emails, faxes, and memos are only a few of the types of written communications prepared by project managers. Most are hurriedly written, disorganized, filled with poor grammar, lack coherence, and fail to communicate effectively the writer’s thoughts.
Many project managers attribute the failure to write well to a lack of time, little or no training in effective writing, and a disinterest in improving their writing and editing skills. Poor written communication can lead to devastating consequences. Project errors and omissions, disputes, poor client service, legal proceedings, and many other undesirable results can flow from poorly written materials. Most project managers would greatly benefit from attending effective writing classes and from regular writing and editing practice.
While not a panacea, the following steps will help most project managers and other individuals improve their writing and editing skills:
Organize your thoughts — Take a few seconds to organize your thoughts. What are you trying to communicate and how can you best do it? For most people, a brief outline of key items is sufficient. Don’t worry about proper outlining form. Just get your thoughts down. When finished, take a quick break, come back to your outline, and see if you have missed anything important. As you write your first draft, new ideas may come, and the outline modified as needed.
Write your first draft — For most, this is the toughest step. Put your thoughts into words; nothing else matters. Proper sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and wordiness are not the issue. Your first draft will be disorganized, repetitive, and your thoughts unclear. Upon review, the opening paragraph or the opening sentence will likely be completely unnecessary. Getting your thoughts on the screen (hopefully, you are not using pad and pen) are crucial. Refinement and editing come later. Unfortunately, many project managers stop here and email, fax, mail, or otherwise distribute this very rough version of their writing.
Review and edit your first draft for content — Does your first draft say what you intended? Does it cover all your points? Does it make sense? Put yourself in the place of the intended reader — will they be able to understand it? An excellent technique to use at this (and every stage) of the writing and editing process is to read your words out loud. The way your words sound is often how others will read them. If it is cumbersome to speak, it will be cumbersome to read. Let someone else read your work. Even if they are not expert writers, they will be far more objective in reviewing your work than you.
Revise your draft for flow and clarity of ideas — Once you have edited your first draft, put it aside (preferably overnight) and reread it. Do the ideas flow? Could you say them more clearly? Could it be reorganized for better coherence? What could be cut that’s unnecessary, repetitive, or fails to support your points or arguments? You may need to move sentences or even whole paragraphs around while deleting others.
Examine your writing closely for wordiness — At this point, you are almost finished with the editing process. Your goal is to make your writing as concise as possible. Could one word substitute for a phrase; could a phrase substitute for a sentence? This is a challenging step. Most of us are trying to undo years of poor schooling. Remember those 500-word book reports? Most of us were taught quantity, not quality. Abraham Lincoln knew the folly of this approach — his Gettysburg Address is only about 270 words long and five minutes in length.
Do a final check — This is your fine-tuning step. Check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Don’t simply rely on the computer’s spell (or grammar) check. The word may be spelled write (right); unfortunately, it may be the wrong word. Send out your written words now and it’s unlikely you’ll be embarrassed.
Take this process seriously. Many project managers don’t seem to understand that readers of their words often know bad writing when they see it. A judgment on your skill as a project manager is often formed by reading your written words. Poorly written documents call into question your drawings, calculations, opinions, and professional advice. To prevent this, some firms even have professional editors available to review project managers’ writing and to provide written communication training. With practice, this process becomes automatic and can be done quickly. Following these steps will make you a better writer, a more respected communicator, and a more successful project manager.