Once something is committed to writing, it’s in the world forever. It can be printed and placed in a personnel file, forwarded on to who knows where, and saved. When you hit “send,” it’s out of your hands, and you can’t take it back.
Not everyone was an English major in college, but no matter how great you are at what you do, it’s very difficult to be taken seriously if you can’t express yourself effectively in writing. As more and more business is conducted online and social media becomes the backbone of public relations, it’s crucial to make sure your message is as clear and correct as possible.
In a competitive workplace, you are constantly under scrutiny. Your everyday correspondence represents you. When two employees are up for a promotion, if all job performance-related factors are equal, communication skills give the extra push.
It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job if you:
- Write emails in all lower-caps or with the caps-lock button engaged
- End too many sentences with exclamation points (or heaven forbid several exclamation points in a row)
- Constantly mix up the use of “your/you’re,” “its/it’s,” and “there/their/they’re”
- Write as if your sentences are bullet points
- Use texting abbreviations and emoticons when you’re not texting
These are red flags that signal carelessness or immaturity.
It’s unrealistic and, honestly, a little obnoxious to expect every person to have flawless grammar all the time, and people will generally overlook the occasional mistake. Here are some simple tricks to improve your day-to-day writing without taking a course or constantly referring to a grammar book:
1. Keep it simple.
Keep your sentences short and to the point. It’s better to be correct and brief than to over-compensate. If you try to sound fancy, but you don’t have the grammar chops to back it up, you’ll end up sounding foolish instead of formal.
This applies to punctuation, too. All you really need is a comma, period, and question mark.
2. When you’re not sure if a comma belongs, skip it.
There are some places in which a comma is mandatory to avoid a run-on sentence, but most of time it’s a stylistic choice. Here are the big ones:
- In between two complete sentences that are separated by “and” or “but.” (See the first sentence of this section.)
- Between an “if/then” scenario, even if the “then” is omitted: “If the cake is done, turn the oven off.”
- Before an explanatory “which”: I’m in Portland, which is the capital of Maine.
Don’t add a comma if you just feel like there should be a pause. Unnecessary commas are like cheese graters on the brain.
And while we’re on this, let’s talk about semi-colons. A semi-colon is like a nail gun: if you don’t know how to use it, don’t. The rules are very specific. When used wrong, semi-colons just make you seem false and pretentious. Most of the time, a comma or a period does the same job.
3. If you have to choose, sentence fragments are more acceptable than run-ons.
Plenty of famous authors use sentence fragments on purpose to portray urgency or to keep the language at a certain pace. They have a certain confidence. Run-on sentences just make you sound like you’re rambling and uncertain. Again, keep it short.
4. Read it out loud.
When you’re done writing your e-mail or post, read it to yourself out loud. If something is very wrong or unnatural, you’re much more likely to catch it because it feels awkward or you struggle to say it clearly the first time.
5. Make a cheat sheet.
If you make the same mistakes again and again, or there’s something you know you never get right, give yourself a reminder. Don’t make it a complete treatise on grammar or you’ll never be able to find what you need. For example, I once had a co-worker who did a lot of work with convenience stores, but she always wrote “convenients.” She put a post-it on her computer monitor with “convenience” on it, and she never made the mistake again.
6. Use a template.
If you tend to write the same thing in your letters or e-mails all the time, have a document with corrected text available from which you can copy and paste when needed.
No matter what people may say about the effects of technology, the written word still has influence. Strong written communications skills are essential if you want to get hired, move up the ladder, or successfully build your business relationships.