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When eager new project managers emerge onto the scene — or when experienced professionals in other disciplines have the mantle of project management thrust upon them — they generally expect to do a fair amount of writing.

A fair amount, yes. But enough to comprise few novels a year? No. Yet that’s the norm on a project management landscape where paper-less doesn’t remotely mean writing-less. On the contrary, the vital importance of effective written communication is only growing as projects get more complex, as workflows become more agile, and as enterprises deploy more remote workers who can’t afford to be left out of the loop.  

The good news is that project managers who lack a talent for writing don’t have to get a cat, start drinking excessive amounts of coffee, don a fedora, or adopt any other writer stereotypes. Instead, they can abide by the following five commandments to significantly improve their ability to communicate, connect and convince through the written word:

Commandment #1: Know Thy Audience

Project managers do themselves — and everyone for that matter — a big favor by taking a step back before they put fingers to keyboard, and grasping who they’re trying to engage and inform.

For example, team members who are intimately familiar with the day-to-day reality of a project typically want short messages and updates (more about size in a moment), while sponsors and customers often require context to help them make sense of information — and to prevent misunderstandings and overreactions.

Commandment #2: State Thy Purpose

“Burying the lede” is fine for novels, movies, and even songs when key details are deliberately held back to create intrigue and mystery. But this time-honored tactic in the creative realm has no place in project communications.

As such, in the first sentence (or at least first paragraph) of their documents, project managers should clearly state the purpose of the communication, so that recipients know vs. have to guess whether they’re about to read general information, required background notes for an upcoming meeting, a set of new or modified instructions and action items, and so on

Commandment #3: Be Concise — but not Cryptic

When it comes to project communication, brevity is a virtue; especially since even relatively small and straightforward projects can (and usually do) generate hundreds, or sometimes even thousands of documents, comments and updates by the time things are done. That’s a lot of writing…and a lot of reading!

However, there’s a qualitative difference between being concise in written communication —  and being cryptic. Project managers that achieve the former strive to keep things as short and to the point as possible, but they don’t sacrifice clarity and comprehension for size. For example, if an update legitimately needs two paragraphs — or maybe two pages — then they adjust accordingly. Conversely, project managers who fall on the wrong side of the concise-cryptic spectrum can point to plenty of tiny communications, but unfortunately, they can’t point to many informed team members.

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Commandment #4: Dread Not the Grammar Beast

This piece of advice is going to raise the ire of some hard core writers out there, but project management isn’t for the oversensitive anyway, so here it goes: project managers who aren’t sure whether their participles are dangling or their infinitives are splitting shouldn’t sweat it. Yes, good grammar is important. But no, it’s not essential.   

With this being said, project managers who want to really separate themselves from the pack — and earn instant loyalty and love from the English majors with whom they come into contact — should invest time on a regular basis to up their grammar game. Before long, they’ll be reclaiming split infinitives and dangled participles with the deftness of an editor.

Commandment #5: Re-Read Twice, Send Once

Apprenticing carpenters are told to measure twice and cut once. In the same spirit, project managers are advised to re-read their written communication twice before sending.

The first pass should happen after the document has been written. The purpose here is to detect any basic errors. The second pass should happen after a gap of time, and focus on audience, clarity and conciseness (i.e. writing commandments 1, 2 and 3).  

How much time is a “gap”? Ideally, it’s about a day. Re-visiting a piece of written communication with fresh eyes can be surprisingly helpful. But practically, sometimes things like updates or requests need to go out ASAP. In such cases, even a gap of a minute or two can be beneficial.

The Bottom Line

Whether you’re happy that project managers spend a lot of time writing — or the notion is as appealing to you as being stuck in a traffic jam — the fact remains that writing is an increasingly important part of the job. The five commandments above won’t instantly turn you into a master wordsmith. But they will help you improve your writing skills, which means more informed team members and stakeholders, and more successful projects and portfolios.  

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