The Secret to Effective Written Communication

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Writing is one of the most important skills that you can develop in your career.

Writing full sentences forces you to think through your arguments and present them in a structured way. Writing also gives every reader in your company the opportunity to understand what you’re trying to communicate without you having to be there to explain it to them. 

The secret to writing well is to keep it simple, short, and specific. 

Simple: Get to the Point

When you’re writing, your primary goal is to communicate a single point. Here’s how you can structure your document to keep it simple:

  1. Start with the main point.

  2. Follow up with no more than three supporting arguments.

Start with the main point because your readers are busy. If the first paragraph doesn’t tell them what they need to know, they will not read the rest of your document. By stating the main point upfront, you’re showing your readers you’re confident about your argument. Those who have questions can easily read more to understand your supporting arguments. 

Follow up with no more than three supporting arguments because most readers don’t like to remember more than three things. If they have to read through a laundry list of arguments, they will tune out. Worse, you’ve shown readers you don’t know which arguments are the most important.

Think of someone reading your document as peeling an onion. The more your readers have to dig to understand what you’re trying to communicate—peel the onion—the more annoyed they’ll get. Most people will not keep peeling the onion, so make sure you get to the point right away.

Short: Aim for Two Pages

In The Elements of Style, Strunk & White wrote about why it’s important to keep your writing concise:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should contain no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

One of the best ways to keep your writing simple is to keep it short. Every word that you add lessens the impact of all the other words. Amazon forces all product managers to write documents that are no more than six pages. However, I’ve found that most of the time you can make your argument in just one to two pages. If you have to, you can include more details in an appendix or FAQ.

Specific: Remove Uncertainty

Don’t make your readers guess what you’re trying to communicate. Here’s an example:

Our product’s user base grew a lot over the past month.

This statement raises many questions: “How many users were added?” “From when to when did this happen?” Here’s a much better sentence: 

From 4/1 to 4/30, our product grew from 100 to 120 daily active users (+20%).

Be as specific as possible in your communication to remove uncertainty.

More Tips for Writing Well

Here are a few more ways to keep your writing simple, short, and specific:

Writing Process

  1. Write for your audience. Think about who’s most likely to read your document and put yourself in that person’s shoes. Try to understand what that person cares about and what they already know. For example, an executive is less likely to be interested in implementation details compared to an engineer on your team.

  2. Review and edit all the time. Review and edit your document to fix grammar and streamline paragraphs to simplify your writing. Read a printout of your document or say the words out loud to get a sense of how it flows from a different perspective.

  3. Ask knowledgeable people to review. Preview your document with knowledgeable people so they can provide feedback. Ask someone who’s not familiar with your project to read your document to see if they can understand your main points.

  4. Answer the most common questions. As you and others review the document, make a note of the most common questions that come up. Revise your document to answer these questions, either in the narrative or in the FAQ. 

Writing Style

  1. Make your writing scannable. Your headings and formatting should allow your readers to quickly scan your document to understand your main arguments. 

  2. Use the active voice. The active voice is more direct and confident than the passive one. For example, write “We will grow users by…” instead of “A series of improvements will help us grow users.”

  3. Don’t use complicated words. Try to avoid using complex words, jargon, or acronyms as much as possible. If you must use an acronym, explain what it means the first time that you use it.

  4. Remove words that introduce uncertainty. Avoid words like should, might, could, probably, and maybe in your writing. Replace these words with data or a statement of fact.

  5. Only include charts if you can defend all the numbers. If you add a chart, people will look at all the numbers on it and ask questions. Often, it’s easier to show only the numbers that matter in a sentence or table.