4 questions that will help hone your writing skills

Nearly every current science and technology job requires effective writing skills, according to Stephanie Roberson Barnard, a communications consultant who specializes in training medical professionals to speak and write clearly and persuasively.

Barnard and Deborah St James are co-authors of Listen. Write. Present.: The Elements for Communicating Science and Technology (Yale University Press; 2012).

“Whether you’re requesting funds for a research project, a loan for a business venture, or writing a cover letter, resume or abstract, you’ll want to write with confidence and conviction,” said St. James, deputy director of publications and communications for a biotech company in North Carolina.

Unfortunately, science-rich educations often leave little room for students to learn how to craft a strong written message. Barnard and St. James suggest that healthcare professionals ask themselves four questions before starting any written communication:

  1. Is it reader based? Ask yourself: Who are my readers? Are they colleagues or people outside my field? What do they know? What do they need to know? How can I best present the material to these readers? Knowing who your reader is will help you decide what words to use and exactly how much detail is needed.
  2. Is it purposeful? Your second question should be, Why am I writing this? Today we live in an over-communicated society: e-mails, text messages, tweets, ads, letters, newspapers, magazines, books. In fact, most of what we write no one reads. Make sure every word is useful and relevant to every one of your intended readers.
  3. Is it clear and concise? Generally, the cause of unclear writing is too many words. Many writers will read a long, rambling sentence they’ve written, and to clarify it they’ll write another long, rambling sentence. Big mistake. If a sentence is unclear, take words out. Be wary of long sentences, unclear antecedents, poor transitions, jargon, clichés and acronyms.
  4. Is it correct? Nothing defeats a grant application, business plan or resume faster than grammatical, punctuation or spelling errors. Choose a good dictionary and a reputable style guide for your specialty or industry and use it consistently. The style guide will answer questions on grammar, punctuation and word usage. It will help you appear polished, professional and well-educated.

Barnard and St. James also suggest two final tips to improve your writing:

  • Read more. You’ll increase your vocabulary and see how other writers craft sentences and argue points to make those points more effective. Good choices for reading material: general non-fiction, scholarly journals and award-winning books specific to your trade.
  • Practice. Writing is a skill. The more you do it, using the suggestions above, the better you will become.