3 basic things you need to get right in written communication

This article is part of a new series on professional writing skills needed to support the development of project manager competencies according to the PMI®’s Project Manager Competency Development Framework (PMCDF). The article covers three of the basic things that project managers need to get right, namely document control information, formatting, and the basic rules of writing.

Basic rules of writing

Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation show respect to your reader. Compare these two versions of the same passage of text:

Quality . quality mean’s fitnes of use this definision of quality apply’s too many things .like projects operation and products  If u agree 2 deliver a services u must agree,the quality definision aswell . so ur client wont argue with u l8r.

Quality: Quality means fitness for use. This definition of quality applies to many things, like projects, operations and products. If you agree to deliver a service, you must agree on the quality definition as well, so that your client won’t argue with you later.

The first passage takes longer to read, because you have to decipher it to make sense of it. The second passage is much easier to read and understand, because the grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct.

The benefit of getting the basics right are obvious in this extreme example. But what if it’s not that bad?

Consider this example:

Quality: Quality means fitness for use, this definition of quality apply’s to many things like projects, operations and products. If you agree to deliver a service you must agree on the quality definition aswell so your client wont argue with you later.

This version isn’t all that hard to understand. However, there are still enough mistakes in it to strip off the professional edge.

In short:

Master the basic rules of writing so that you can get the message across with the fewest obstacles for your reader. It will build your credibility.

Formatting

Here we’re talking about the way your writing looks.

Readers automatically and subconsciously try to figure out the meaning of the formatting. If the formatting is meaningless, it becomes a distraction. If the format is meaningful, it aids understanding. Compare these two versions of the same passage of text:

Bad text formatting

Good text formatting

In the first version, the reader may wonder for a few moments whether the writer intended to convey some special meaning by starting a new line, inserting extra spaces, switching fonts, and using font attributes such as italics. Eventually, they may conclude that this writer copied and pasted some of the text from somewhere else, and didn’t know how to make it all look consistent. The overall effect is disturbingly unprofessional, and looks somewhat like a poem instead of a piece of explanatory text.

In the second version, formatting is used with discernable meanings. The topmost word is clearly a heading. Italics are used for a definition, and bold provides emphasis to a list of examples. Because bold is used consistently for this purpose, most readers won’t even slow down to try to figure out why some of the text is bold. If the same attributes are used consistently throughout the document for headings, definitions and emphasised words in inline lists, the reading experience will be smooth, and the reader will understand the content of the document more easily.

Note that the second version does actually include a formatting error: “If” and “you” should appear on the same line, but instead, “you” begins on a new line. Mistakes like this become easier to spot and correct if everything else is neat and consistent.

Document control details

Even if you don’t have a formal document control system yet, there are some basic principles which you can apply.

Consider the following: When you mail someone an attachment, and they want to pass it on, file it, or print it, will it quickly be clear who sent this document and what it’s all about? If you’ve revised the document, and you want to have a telephone discussion about something which you added in the latest version, how can the recipient be sure which version they have in front of them?

Here is an example of details added to a document cover to provide some of the essential context.

Document control details, such as version number, are on the cover of this document.

In this example, it is clear who the intended reader is (Dr. Mxolisi Xaki), what the document is about (Proposal for equipment supply and installation in respect of the XakiTek Laboratories Expansion Programme), and when the document was updated (2017.04.20). It is also possible to refer specifically to this document in correspondence: “I refer to your proposal RP-XAKI-P01-V05, in which you recommend that we…”

Your filename should similarly be fit for use. The screenshot below shows the filenames of proposals sent by different contractors to the same person for the same project.Filenames - good and bad

Note how the two filenames at the bottom of this list provide context that is useful to both the recipient and the sender. These filenames show the recipient who the document is from (Reynaldo Projects), and what type of document it is (Proposal). Most importantly, each filename contains a unique document reference code which includes a version number.

Long filenames like these can spawn problems of their own, so you’ll need to think about what you want your filenames to convey, and work out a protocol that supports that. (In Module 3 of the Practical Certification Programme in Project Management, we go into more detail about the considerations involved in setting up document controls.)

Once you’ve decided on a protocol, stick to it consistently. If you change your protocol midway through a project, notify the people who work with your documents.

Conclusion

Apply the basic rules of writing in all your formal communication. Format your text in a meaningful way, and include document control details where necessary. These habits help build a solid basic foundation for dealing with the more sophisticated requirements of professional project documentation described in international Project Management standards.

The definition of quality used throughout this article (“fitness for use”) is that of Joseph M. Juran. Juran’s successors later changed this definition slightly. Check out this article which uses the new definition.

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Tania Melnyczuk

Director of Programme Design at ProjectManagement.co.za and the Collaboration Director of the Autistic Strategies Network.

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