The Right Approach to Writing

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The expression, “It’s not what you say but how you say it,” holds particular meaning in the IT profession. In your role, you must be able to write effectively about complex technical products and practices. Whether you’re responding to an e-mail from an end user about the implications of an upcoming systems conversion or drafting a memo to senior management requesting additional funding for an IT initiative, clear communication is essential.

What can you do if writing skills aren’t your strong suit? Start by putting things in perspective. You don’t need the talent of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Most people just require guidance on a particular issue or concern, so you don’t need to be too creative.

Target the Information
Before writing, always ask yourself, “What is the knowledge level of my audience?” “Do they have IT backgrounds?” Terminology like “shell enhancement” and “SCSI cards” may be well understood by your peers, but not by those with whom you’re trying to communicate. Don’t assume readers will take the initiative and time to find out the definitions. As the writer, you should strive to make it as easy as possible for people to understand your message, using plain English whenever appropriate.

Also, focus on the information most relevant to your audience. While technology executives may want to hear about the advantages of the new server you just purchased, employees will be more interested to learn they won’t have remote access to files the weekend of the upgrade.

Consider whether there are any pre-existing opinions or problems that may influence your audience’s interpretation and response to your writing. For instance, senior management may have expressed concerns that a particular project be completed within a specific time frame. When preparing an update on the initiative, provide them with the necessary reassurance by addressing the issue upfront.

Get to the Point
It is generally best to keep e-mail and print documents brief. Busy professionals will be focused on the bottom line, so avoid providing too many details.

If you are preparing an extensive report, such as an analysis of the pros and cons of a particular technology, consider including a one- or two-page executive summary at the beginning. Break the document into subsections using headlines, such as “Alternative Products to Consider” and “Estimated Costs,” to make it easier for readers to locate information.

Watch Your Language
Even if you are exchanging informal e-mail with a department administrator about a software purchase, keep the tone professional. You never know who might ultimately see your messages. Just envision a vice president at your company reading correspondence about a “killer new app,” and you’ll get the idea.

Pay attention to wording. Is there anything in your e-mail or print document that could be misinterpreted? For instance, you might say, “I want to be included in all future discussions about the financial systems upgrade,” meaning you have an interest in learning more about the plans. However, the reader might believe that she is being told you must be invited and made part of an existing project team—two entirely different meanings, which could create political tensions in your department or organization.

Conversely, if you are responding to a seemingly controversial or hurtful e-mail, try to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Before sending a message you could regret later, you might point out statements that could have a double meaning and note, “I’m not sure what you are suggesting here, could you elaborate?” You may also find that a phone call or face-to-face discussion helps resolve the issue effectively.

Since the spell-check function can’t catch omitted phrases or incorrect word usage, take the time to reread all of your documents––including e-mail––before distributing them. Written communication filled with typographical and grammatical errors reflects poorly on your attention to detail and your abilities as an IT professional. If you are sending out an important document, ask a close associate to read it to ensure it makes the right impression.

Writing may always rank up there with visits to the dentist—something you need to do but never really enjoy. However, by simply making an effort to keep your communication relevant to the audience and easy to read, you can become an effective writer. With practice, your writing can make an impact and help demonstrate that you have the broad skills needed to succeed as an IT professional.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology (, a leading provider of IT professionals for various initiatives, with more than 100 locations in North America and Europe.


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