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Cover image for The things we can do to write better emails, slack messages, etc.

The things we can do to write better emails, slack messages, etc.

_vsaw profile image Valentin Sawadski ใƒป3 min read

We've all seen posts like these about the increase of writing skills

While I fully agree that written communication is becoming extremely more important in remote and async work. I found no good post on how to improve your writing skills.

So I decided to share with you what I've learned so far and hope to pick up a few things from the comments.

Getting to know your medium

Before we get into tips and tricks, I found it important to understand the different aspects of text.

The upsides are best summarized in this tweet

On the other hand, the async nature of text comes with its limitations: You can not...

  1. control when your text will be read
  2. how much attention it is given
  3. control how your text will be interpreted
  4. see how well your text is understood
  5. react to the reader

With that in mind, here are 4 things I do to bring my message across :-)

#1 Keep it brief

Assume your Emails, Bug tickets, Commit messages, etc. will be read many times (e.g. they go out to more than 1 person or will be used as reference for related topics in the future).

Therefore, keep your text brief. Exclude anything that is not relevant. Replace "fill words" with clear, easy statements

  • In my humble opinion -> I think
  • The outcome remains unpredictable -> I don't know

#2 Give it structure

A clear structure can help guide your reader through longer texts. So use headlines, paragraphs, formatting to separate and highlight the different parts of your text.

For some text formats like Commit messages, Bug tickets, regular status updates, a more formal structure make sense for you. Check out semantic commit messages for example.

#3 Avoid Ambiguity

Texts might be read out context (e.g. forwarded emails) or someone who does not have the same background information you do. Therefore try to use precise term that allow little misinterpretation, e.g.

  • Use Names: I've spoken to him John
  • Use Numbers: It happens sometimes once a week
  • Beware of "and" and "or": We could do 1 and 2 or 3 A) 1 and 2, or B) 3. Let me know if you want to do A) or B).

#4 Anticipate Follow Ups

Reduce the amount of communication loops by grouping your questions and anticipating follow up.

E.g. Don't send an email asking "can XYZ be done?", wait 2 days for the reply and then ask "how long will it take?". Instead write something like this

Hi,

can XYZ be done? I ask because of reason ABC.

If so, can you give me an estimate how long it will take. You don't need to spend much time on this a rough estimate is fine.

If it can not be done, please let me know what would need to change in order for it to become possible. Again, a rough estimate is fine.

This is not urgent. A reply until Friday 23rd is fine.

Thank you

This way, you have both outcomes of your original questions covered. And follow up questions about the context, and expected quality of the estimations and deadline are also answered beforehand.

Conclusion

To sum it up, whenever I write texts I always ask myself the following 4 questions before hitting send:

  1. did I keep it brief?
  2. is my structure clear?
  3. what could be misunderstood?
  4. which follow ups will come?

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