Back to basics: how to be good at your job

Part One: Writing

Happy New Year! 

We are kicking off 2020 with a ‘back to basics’ series on how to be great at your job. 

Today we begin the series with our tips on writing. 

Good writing is essential for so many jobs. This is particularly the case in the civil service, where so much advice to Ministers and senior officials is given through written submissions and emails. 

Here are our six top tips for good writing. 

1. Three key questions before you start – ‘who?’, ‘why?’ and ‘what?’

Who is your target audience? From this, everything follows: the level of detail you need, your tone, the type of language you use, and the arguments you deploy. 

Why are you writing this? A clear objective makes for a much clearer piece of writing.

What is your key message? You need to be clear about the two or three key points you are trying to land. 

2. Clarity is key

It is difficult to overstate the importance of clear writing. 

If you understand something well, you should be able to explain it clearly in a way that anyone can understand. 

Besides, research shows us that information that is easier to process is viewed more positively in almost every way. 

This means:

  • Prune your sentences. Embrace the full stop! 
  • Avoid putting multiple thoughts in one sentence. Readers aren’t as smart as you think. 
  • Keep it simple. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences.
  • Use active rather than passive sentences.
  • Blank space on a page is your friend. It makes life so much easier for the reader.

3. You need more structure that you think

Just because the structure is clear to you does not mean that others will get it. 

So be explicit in your structure:

  • Set out your key points and your structure up front. 
  • Signpost each different section (bold subheadings help with this). Readers should always know where they are. 
  • Signal when you are moving on.

Clarity of writing is particularly important when communicating with Ministers. Civil Service Learning offers some useful courses to help improve your writing style and prepare you for briefings!

4. Make it interesting!

  • Lots of people write well. Very few people, but never  use an image to make their point stick. 
  • When appropriate, tell a story. Most people don’t assimilate data in the same way they would do a story. 
  • In more creative writing, it helps to have a key theme running through your piece, and to ‘bookend’ your piece with references to this theme.

5. Review

  • Review “cold”. If at all possible, don’t judge your writing until the next day.
  • Give it to someone else to look at as a ‘fresh pair of eyes.’ We all know the feeling where you are so immersed in a document that you can’t see the wood from the trees. 

That’s it! 

Remember that, above all, writing and reading is a transaction. 

The reader is donating their time and attention, which are hugely valuable commodities. 

Once you understand that, you develop the empathy you need to become a good writer. 

Further tips

The Day You Became a Better Writer – Scott Adams

The Most Important Writing Lesson I’ve Ever Learned – Steven Pressfield