The other day I received a question from one of my readers in the Middle East. He's a Gen-Yer with an MBA for whom English is not his first language. He'd found that in professional life writing skills matter a lot and was very keen to develop those skills. He went on to say that he was always very impressed and attracted by outstanding emails or articles written by professional personnel. He knew that one could not learn those formats and writing skills overnight, but wondered whether I could give him some tips for improving his writing. Here's my response to his question.
You're absolutely correct. It takes a lot of time to learn to write more effectively, especially in a second language. But, since English is the world's business language, it will stand you good stead to learn how to write well in English. (As an aside, I was surprised to learn just yesterday that more Chinese are studying English than the entire 300 million population of the U.S.--so they'll have more opportunity in the business world.)
Improving writing skills
Here's what I'd do to improve your business writing. If possible, start with several native English speakers in your firm, preferably at your level or one level above, who would be willing to give you feedback on your writing. If you can't find native English speakers, look for several who write well. I suggest coaches at your level or slightly above because if you get people who are too high above you in the hierarchy, they may not understand the level of detail you need. (An important rule for accessing coaches and mentors is to remember that the higher we get in an organization, generally the more difficult it is to give feedback to someone with lesser experience. Higher level managers tend to give information in more abstract form and forget the necessary details.) Get several coaches, if possible. Few business managers will take a lot of time with someone. But if you ask for occasional input, they'll help. That's why several coaches are an advantage. Remember this rule: your mentor (or coach) is a network, not an individual. (I weigh in on that subject in a blog here: http://tiny.ly/mVT6.) You'll need to figure out how to pay your coaches back. I'm not talking about repayment in the form of money, but I'll write about that in the future.
Show your coaches a few paragraphs of what you're writing and ask what you've done well, and what needs to be written better. And listen, listen, listen! Then follow with a paraphrase: "so what you're saying is that I need to . . . ?" And listen some more until you're certain you understand. Pay attention to what your coach says you're doing well, and keep doing that. But also pay attention to what you need to do better. Ask your coaches to give you examples of what to write if you corrected those one or two small errors. Keep track of the feedback, watching for just 2 – 3 recurring errors you make. Work for a month or so on correcting those two or three errors, and ignore the rest of the issues. Then go back and get feedback to find out if you've corrected those errors. If so, celebrate. If not, go back to the drawing boards and continue working on those few errors until you've internalized the correction. Over the long term, you'll be able to develop what one writer calls "strategic patience"—a very important characteristic of the best learners.
Rules for effective learning
When you start to add writing skills, it's important to understand that one of the major mistakes most of us make is to take on objectives that are too big. Research shows that the best way to learn is through feedback and a strategy I call "chunking." Chunking is the process of breaking a skill up into small bits and perfecting those small bits before moving on to more. It's a micro form of what's called "small wins," a well-researched strategy for achieving important objectives over time. I think of chunking as the process of taking baby steps to achieve a major breakthrough. If you're searching for more information on chunking, Ignore the discussion in Wikipedia. That's not exactly what I'm talking about.
To chunk is to take any behavior and break it out into small bits that you can master. If, for example, you're trying to improve your golf game, you might spend an hour with a coach on the subject of putting or hitting long drives. To chunk putting is to break that single skill into small bits. You may simply work at keeping your body from moving when putting—the "hit and hold" technique. Or you might chunk the putting for different lengths--2 feet, 3 feet or 8 feet—and so forth. Practice without the coach, and then go back to the coach to have him assess your "hit and hold" technique or 2, 3 and 8 foot putts. As a general rule, the smaller the chunk you're working on, the faster and more effective you become. So think about chunking as "staggering baby steps." Chunking is how you tap into the power of the multiplier effect. Although I couldn't find a useful article on chunking, here's a swell discussion of small wins.
It's important to read good business writers. You might look at some of the writing on Harvard Business Blogs. That writing has been edited and it can provide you with numerous examples of effective writing.
This is what I do for my writing. About once every three weeks I give my bright protégé (a 27 year-old college English major who works in finance) a blog to edit. Sometimes he's ruthless with a red correction pen, but it's always marvelous stuff. My friends tell me they could never deal with that much feedback. I chuckle because I know that we really can't learn without practice AND feedback. The research on expertise building and deliberate practice reveals that feedback is an absolute necessity for real growth. Practice doesn't really make perfect without feedback. So I can't express how valuable his input has been for me.
I really, really appreciate your occasional questions. I'll be happy to respond.