The world of work requires excellent writing skills. However, many of today's professionals spaced out during their high school English teacher's lessons regarding the art of diagramming a sentence or how to write an effective persuasive essay.
Like it or not, how you convey yourself in writing can make or break your message and the impression others have of you. Here are some of the most common mistakes in business writing, including how people write their résumé and cover letter. Take note now, and be prepared to make up for those lost lessons.
1. Inconsistent spacing. You most likely know someone (probably your boss) who can look at a document, and -- in less than a second -- announce: "Something is wrong with this." This person has been gifted with "Inconsistency Spotting." This ability to notice and correct the extra space after a word or the errant use of two lines between paragraphs can supercharge the impact of written work. The good news is that you don't have to be born with this power -- you just need to stop before you send a document and do the following:
-- Select "Show/Hide Codes" on your document so that you can see every space and return. In Word, it is the icon that looks like a backward "P" in your toolbar.
-- Verify that you have handled like items in the document consistently. For example, intentionally have a space (or don't have a space) on each side of every dash used. In a résumé, dates are one of the most obvious dash spacing pitfalls with one entry of "August 2012-June 2013" followed by "July 2013 -- March 2014." Notice the difference? Neither one is right or wrong, but using both formats in one résumé shows a lack of attention to detail.
-- Have a plan for how many lines or returns are between related sections of a document. For example, you may want to use one line (single-space) between each paragraph but two between sections in a contract.
-- Verify alignment of text. If you aligned left in one area but accidentally selected justified (meaning lined up on both the left and right) in another, the spacing between characters will vary. Mixed alignment on one page can distract the reader.
2. Fanciful fonts. A selective reader can spot a cut-and-paste document a mile away. Often, it will have excerpts from different documents, but the author has not gone back to verify that all text has the same font and point size. In today's crowd-sourcing world, business professionals often draw from multiple sources to create sales collateral, write informational letters and even write their résumés.
However, it is critical that these items come together in one cohesive document. Make sure you verify that the fonts, point sizes and treatment of things like headers and titles are harmonious before hitting "Send."
3. Sloppy spelling. I am sure we have all heard about the importance of spell checking. However, even when you run spell check, two issues can remain. First, spell check may have changed your incorrect word to a similarly spelled word that has a different meaning. You need to reread your document for both spelling and message after spell check. Just a little change from "of" to "if" can dramatically alter the message.
The second issue is that spell check does not do well with names of companies and people. If you mindlessly accept the recommendations of spell check, you may accidentally change "Collegial Services," for example, to "Collegiate Services" and "Robin Reshwan" to "Robin Reshawn." Trust me that no matter how great the content of your letter, you lost me when you messed up my name or my business's name.
In summary, there is a reason why so many job descriptions include "Must be detail-oriented." With the ease of forwarded emails and attached documents, writing mistakes are not only detrimental with the first recipients, but the pain lives on each time your message is sent to someone else.
Successful business correspondence requires thoughtful planning and careful editing. The good news is that anyone can master the skills necessary to send a visually consistent document if they stop to assess before sending the message.
Robin Reshwan is the founder of Collegial Services, a consulting/staffing firm that connects college students, recent graduates and the organizations that hire them and a certified Women's Business Enterprise (WBE). She has interviewed, placed and hired thousands of people across a broad spectrum of companies and industries. Her career tips and advice are used by universities, national clubs/associations and businesses. A Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Robin has been honored as a Professional Business Woman of the Year by the American Business Women's Association. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and as a Regents Scholar from University of California, Davis.