Written communication is a double-edged sword in business. The written word gives us time to think, to craft a precise message of painstakingly selected phrases that convey our passion, our intellect and our most convincing arguments to win the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of others.

It allows us to proof, and have someone else review, what we’ve said to ensure it does, indeed, say what we intend. On the other hand, it lays bare our limited vocabulary, ignorance of proper grammar and syntax, and apparent inability to perform the simplest spellcheck in Word or Outlook.

In other words, written communication can make us look like a superstar or a complete idiot in the blink of an eye. No wonder many people do their best to steer clear of it whenever possible.

But getting ahead in your career requires basic document writing skills. Let’s face it – planning requires words, and lots of them: RFPs, contracts, event descriptions, proposals and, for many, blog and newsletter articles that build industry credibility, programs, registration instructions, event marketing – never mind the endless emails we drown in every day.

This means that we all communicate in writing, whether we like it or not. How effectively we do so can help us or hurt us.

Anyone can subscribe to Webster’s “Word of the Day” to improve vocabulary, slow down a nanosecond to run a spellcheck or grab a copy of the MLA Handbook or AP Stylebook to check grammar on the fly, but here are some of the finer points of effective written communication we were never taught in school:

1. Create guideposts for your reader. We live in a 7-second attention-span world, where people read headlines first. Only then do they decide whether to find out more. Help your reader find the info they want while making sure they read the info you want them to see. This can be accomplished with headers in any document, or bullet points just like in this one. An email subject line is a guidepost, so make the most of it. Document headers and sections, and even tables of content are often overlooked tools. The shorter and snappier they are, the more effective they are.

2. K.I.S.S. As in “keep it simple, stupid.” Simple, clear, concise communication is always the most effective. Why? Because it’s confident and user-friendly. A variety of synonyms and sentence structures keeps your writing from feeling repetitive. A fancy vocabulary that uses words like “inculcate” and “effulgent” is impressive but not always in a good way. If your readers have to keep Googling the meaning of words, they are going to give up. And you may be perceived as self-indulgent, which reduces your credibility.

More common is the use of too many words. Nike has been telling us for years to “Just Do It.” They have not been telling us to “Just get out there and be active at whatever sport really inspires you to move your body, so you can feel really good about yourself in the process, while wearing some really cool shoes we just happen to manufacture for a wide variety of uses as diverse as the possibilities you have to consider.” If they were, we would likely have told them to “just shut up.”

Short, sweet content is the essence of so many communications today (blogs, websites, Twitter, LinkedIn) that it is the single most important writing skill you should refine.

3. Write once. Read twice. Never underestimate the power of a typo. Many of us now email from our phones with the signature “Excuse the typos courtesy of my [smartphone brand].” It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. We look less than professional regardless of whether we created the error or auto correct did. Use phones to email only in a true emergency, and reread emails twice before hitting send — this includes who you are emailing as well as the subject line. I learned the hard way. I lost an account because one of my staff delivered a proposal with too many typos in it.

Even now, in this hurried, harried world, I sometimes need to be reminded. It is extremely difficult to proof your own work, and spellcheck won’t catch everything. If there is no one available to read your work, your best option is to read  it backward, thereby avoiding the context and reviewing only the words. Printing it out, while not necessarily eco-friendly, also lets you spot mistakes.

4. Don’t turn your writing into a sideshow. All caps, italics and bold, as well as the various fonts, colors and sizes available to us, often are used to replace carefully chosen words. This dizzying application of color and visual emphasis almost invariably accompanies what I call “too-many-words syndrome.” Not only is it gaudy and unprofessional, using form to replace function makes it harder for the reader to navigate your document. Keep your message precise, then add a little color to a guidepost. Don’t shout at readers with a series of competing messages.

Next: MBEC 33.03 — Use communication tools

See all 33 skills you need to be an effective planner.