A Project Manager’s Guide to Writing Well: 21 Writing Tips to Keep Communication and Collaboration Moving
Out of all the project management skills we attribute to great teams–planning, leadership, decision-making, etc...–writing well rarely makes the list. But between writing planning documents, giving feedback, stakeholder updates, reports, and days spent on email and chat, it can seem like the majority of your day is taken up with writing in one form or another.
Good writing is a project management superpower. But while we’ve all learned the basics of how to communicate through the written word, there’s a big difference between writing to share information and writing to lead, inspire, and make your team more effective.
Jump to a section
The bigger (and more distributed) your company or team gets the more important it is to write well.
Writing makes your team work faster and more efficiently. It shares knowledge across the whole company. And forces everyone to really think through issues before adding noise to the workplace.
As Dave Girouard, CEO of Upstart and former President of Google Apps explains:
“Words and software share a wonderful attribute: Write them once and they can benefit an infinite audience at no additional expense.”
So how do you make the most out of your writing? We’ve pulled together some of the best writing tips on how to craft clear, concise, and compelling prose, stay motivated to write, and uncover your inner Hemingway.
The best writing tips for project managers
Writing is one of the core qualities of the world’s top tech teams. At Amazon, engineering teams start by writing about features before anything gets built. While at Stripe, writing clearly is so important that emails often come with footnotes!
Yet as project managers, writing serves purposes beyond just transferring information or clarifying product decisions. Writing well:
- Saves time. Writing well reduces communication. Writing that is clear, coherent, and concise sets proper expectations. This means fewer emails, meetings, and even mistakes.
- Shares knowledge. Writing well is the best way to document and disseminate your team’s wisdom. Whether it’s sharing lessons learned or writing technical documentation, knowledge management is key to a successful product team.
- Motivates your team. Team updates can be either dry and stale or uplifting and encouraging. Writing well shows you understand what your team is going through, which builds trust and rapport (which turns into motivation and increased productivity).
- Makes hiring easier. Examples of clear writing–from product plans to individual task management–help new teammates get up-to-speed quickly and allows outside contractors or agencies to jump into the deep end.
Yet despite all these clear benefits, few of us treat writing with the intention and deliberateness it deserves. Instead, we think of it as just another part of the job, rather than a skill that deserves regular practice.
Luckily, you’re not alone. Writers love to lament the miseries of their craft and share their battle scars. Below, we’ve gathered 21 of the best writing (and editing) tips from journalists, screenwriters, and prolific project managers to help you communicate and collaborate more effectively.
The set-up: How to write well for the right audience
Writing starts with understanding who you’re writing for. An email to your team lead most likely will look a lot different than an update to a key project stakeholder. But understanding your audience is only part of the equation.
Here are some powerful writing tips on how to prepare and structure any piece of writing for the right audience and outcome.
1. Know your audience (Pick a single person to write to)
The best writing feels like it was written just for you. As it turns out, that’s exactly what great writers do.
Warren Buffet writes for one of his sisters. Stephen King writes for his wife. Every sentence must be understood by that specific person, not some vague and faceless ‘reader’.
Before you put a single sentence down, ask: who are you writing for? What do they care about? How can you show that you’re writing for them?
Imagining your audience persona helps build empathy. It gets your reader invested from the first words. But maybe most important, it helps you realize that not all writing warrants the same care and attention.
Spending an hour crafting the perfect email or char response is a waste of time when a casual or to-the-point message will do just as good a job for your reader.
2. Write your logline first
Understanding who your audience is helps you with how to write but it won’t tell you how to make them care.
In screenwriting, a logline is a one-to-two-sentence summary of a film’s plot, characters, main conflict, and unique angle. Here are a couple of examples you might recognize:
During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.
An insurance salesman discovers his whole life is actually a reality TV show.
Cloned dinosaurs in a theme park? Voyeuristic reality shows? Tell me more!
It’s a lot to fit into one sentence. But the value is clear: if you can’t get me excited about your story in one line, why would I read 100+ pages of it? The same goes for a project update, proposal, long email, or any other document.
A good exercise is to ruthlessly condense your idea. If it’s one page, try to bring it down to one paragraph. If it’s one paragraph, make it a sentence. This helps you get to the core of what you’re writing and why it matters.
3. Structure for skimmers
Most writing is never read (at least word-for-word).
Instead, a reader should be able to grasp what you’re saying and why just from skimming your document. This means using subheadings, shorter paragraphs, and occasional formatting (like bold and italics) to pull out the most important pieces.
This is almost like a secret code between you and the reader. They can skim for context and then read through for deeper understanding. Structure is what differentiates writing from speaking.
As Dave Nunez, the documentation manager at Stripe, explains:
“Writing forces you to structure your thoughts in a manner just not possible when you verbalize it. When I write, I have to offer structured, precise thoughts.”
Many of the documents you’ll create as a project manager come with a pre-determined structure. But for the ones that don’t, using a personal template ensures you’ll always hit your main points.
4. Master the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front)
There’s an old saying in advertising that says when you’ve written your headline, you’ve spent eighty cents out of your dollar.
The first line of any document is the most important. People are 5 times as likely to read your headline as your body copy. So why obscure what you’re trying to say?
How many times have you read a company announcement or some long-winded email only to get a few paragraphs in and still have no idea what’s being said, asked of you, or announced?
Journalists call it ‘burying the lede’. But it’s just as accurate to say you’re wasting your reader’s time.
In the military, there’s no time to hide important information. So they use a writing tip called BLUF–'bottom line up front'. This isn’t your actual last line, but the last line a reader needs in order to understand what’s expected of them.
Here’s a perfect example from the writing team at Animalz:
|Putting BLUF into action |
|Don't do this 👉 || 🧟♂️ From Jan Apslund: |
hey, i have a question
|Do this instead 👉|| 🧟♂️ From Jan Asplund: |
do you know of any good examples of though leadership articles we've done? I'm putting together a proposal for ACME, Inc and the other CEO wants to see some examples before signing on.
See the difference?
The body: Writing tips to help you craft copy that is clear, concise, and coherent
Great writing can come in all forms–from emails to official documents. But while the context, length, and tone may change the core elements of your copy stay the same.
Ultimately, all good writing is clear, concise, and coherent. The body of your document is where you get to flex your writing muscles the most. But it’s also where you’ll benefit from restraint, purpose, and practice.
5. Embrace the ‘garbage first draft’
Writing is essentially about transferring information. You want someone to know what you’re thinking, how a project is progressing, or where you need help. However, it’s easy to get off-track when you move too quickly from what you’re trying to say to how you’re going to write it.
Self-editing is the greatest danger any writer can face. To write well, you can’t be afraid of writing poorly to get your ideas down.
If it helps, try setting a short timer and tell yourself to just write during this time. No editing. No rewrites.
You won’t hit the bulls-eye on the first shot. Think of your first draft as exploration. You’re writing wide (i.e. covering as much ground as possible) so that your final draft is deep.
Good writing is a project management superpower.
6. Write to express, not impress
The one writing tip to rule them all is that clarity comes first.
Ambiguity has no place in a project plan, email, or update. Author Gregory Ciotti calls this writing to express, not impress.
“Half the battle with writing is resisting this temptation of the ego. Stick to being straightforward, trust in plain language, and don’t use vocabulary to inflate weak ideas.”
Along with using plain language, pick structural elements that make your points clearer.
For example, rather than long paragraphs that look like a wall of text, use:
- Bullet points: Lists grab your reader’s attention and let them see when you have multiple points to make.
- Callouts: Short sentences in bold or italics are a great way to call attention to a point without repeating it too often.
- Short headers: Start sections of your text with a short header to prime the reader for what’s coming next and help them scan for what’s most important to them.
All of these points are about respecting your reader’s time and attention. Easy reading is hard writing.
7. Tell a story (when you can)
Humans are drawn to stories. Our brains automatically build narratives to help us make sense of the world.
For example, how many stories can you think of that follow Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling:
Once upon a time, there was ____. Every day, ____. One day ____. Because of that, ____. Because of that, ____. Until finally ____.
Your project updates or emails can follow a similar narrative flow:
- [Subject] What are you talking about?
- [Context] What happened to it most recently?
- [Changes] What changes or updates have occurred?
- [Impact] What’s the impact of those changes?
- [Plan] Where are we going next?
8. Continually re-earn attention
A story narrative works because it constantly evolves in a way that’s both familiar and exciting. This is called re-earning your reader’s attention.
Where bad stories (and writing of all kinds) go wrong is assuming that a hook is enough. With a million other things vying for your reader’s attention, you need to constantly remind them why they should get through your thoughts.
Here are some basic rules for re-earning attention:
- BLUF your way through your document. ‘Bottom line up front’ applies to all sections of your document, not just the intro. If you have multiple points, don’t bury them.
- ‘Dress your thoughts well.’ This is another writing tip from Gregory Ciotti. Try to find ways to reframe your thoughts in a way that’s catchy or visual. For example, what sticks with you: ‘Working out is good for you?’ Or ‘Exercise improves everything?’
- Don’t repeat yourself. If you need to say ‘in other words’, ‘essentially’, or ‘basically’ you didn’t get it right the first time.
- Give your readers a map. Your structure should tell readers how far they’ve come and how far they still have to go.
9. Know when you’re done
Great fiction writers leave you wanting more. Great project managers leave you with no questions. However, that doesn’t mean you should write to cover all angles. Rather, know when you’ve said what needs to be said and can move on.
As Paul Graham, essayist and founder of Y Combinator explains:
“Learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.”
The mechanics: Simple grammatical tips to help you write clearer
If you’re not a professional writer, you’d probably like to leave your grammar lessons in high school English class. However, mechanics are about more than just whether or not you use the Oxford comma.
Here are some simple writing tips that will help you write better sentences.
10. Use short, simple words
Writing is a democratic act. Don’t use language that excludes or embarrasses the reader.
Most people advise that you stick to a 5th grader’s level of knowledge. That means short, snappy words, minimal adjectives and adverbs, and no jargon.
Why are you aiming for ‘business objectives’ when ‘goals’ will do the trick?
My favorite writing tip for using short words is to watch for when you catch yourself nodding along with how clever you’ve been. This is usually a sign that you’re choosing wordplay over being clear and concise.
Writing is a democratic act. Don’t use language that excludes or embarrasses the reader.
11. Use verbs to help your reader take action
Good writing leans heavily on verbs rather than adjectives or adverbs. If your team doesn’t know what you want them to do then your writing has failed. However, writing bad news or direct commands can feel uncomfortable. So instead, we hide our meaning or soften the request with filler copy and qualifiers.
For example, explaining a dip in sales by saying ‘last month was a difficult one for everyone in our industry.’
Instead of dressing up your action, take a minute to choose the right verb to express what you’re saying. A common exercise in writing classes is to take one minute and write down every different way you could say that someone is walking.
Are they strolling? Skipping? Ambling? Wandering? Striding? Tramping? Or prowling? All of these verbs essentially say the same thing but paint wildly different pictures.
Choose the right verb for what you want your reader to see.
12. Follow KISA (Keep It Simple and Active)
One more writing tip about verbs: use the right tense to keep it simple and active.
The English language has twelve different verb tenses–from present simple to future perfect continuous. You don’t need to know all of them or what they mean (I don’t). You do, however, need to pick the one that is easiest to understand.
- NO: We were attempting to uncover new user insights.
- YES: We tried to uncover user insights.
If you need a simpler rule, stick to active verbs over passive ones.
Passive verbs are when something is done by someone. While active verbs do the action themselves.
- NO: Our team lead was given her directions by the CEO
- YES: The CEO gave our team lead her directions.
13. Remove any unnecessary words
People often think that writing more is a sign of intelligence. Yet complicated and fluffy writing rarely leaves your audience in awe. Instead, focus on clarity and remove unnecessary words.
Here’s an easy list of words that should be on your list:
- Kind of
You can even drop I think (as your reader hopefully already assumes you thought about what you’re writing).
After you’ve written: How to edit for clarity and punch
Writing well is editing. Your draft gives you a piece of stone. Editing reveals the sculpture within.
Editing is your chance to turn good writing into something great. And a first pass should almost never go out the door. Here are some simple writing tips for how to edit anything you’re writing.
14. Write with the door closed, edit with it open
Self-editing and early feedback can kill your writing. But input on your editing can help you see your ideas from a different perspective. Or, as Hemingway said:
“Write drunk. Edit sober.”
Find someone you trust who can look over what you’ve written and give you honest feedback.
Make sure you set their expectations as well. Are you looking for structural or sentence-level feedback?
The easier a piece of writing is to read, the harder it was to edit.
15. Treat your draft like a journalist
The first lesson in journalism school is that a piece must answer the 5 Ws:
If your piece of writing leaves readers wondering about any of these, you’ve still got work to do.
16. Read it out loud
The greatest editing ‘hack’ you can adopt is to read your piece out loud.
Good writing has a musical nature to it. It flows and builds and stops at the right moments. All of this gets hidden when you read in your head, but becomes abundantly clear when you move from the page to your mouth.
Look for moments where you trip over words or run out of breath. Your tongue and lungs are just as good of a judge of good writing as your mind.
17. Outline your finished draft
An outline is a great tool when you start writing but can be just as important when you’re done. Open a separate doc and skim your document. Along the way, write an outline for what you’ve actually written.
How does the structure work? Does it flow the way you want it to? Are some sections longer than they need to be? Are you meeting the expectations you set out to?
18. Walk away before you hit send
Great editing comes from seeing your words as the reader, not the writer.
If you have the time, step away from your doc before sending it off. This can help clear out your biases and see the work from a different perspective.
Getting (and staying) motivated to write: How to overcome the dreaded writer’s block
Writing isn’t just about what you do when you sit down in front of a keyboard.
19. Write early and regularly
Like any skill, writing takes regular and deliberate practice to get good at. As author E.B. White said:
“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”
Stick to a schedule and prioritize time for writing in your day. This could be as short as 5 minutes. The key is to be consistent and create a routine around putting your brain into ‘writing mode’.
20. Share what works
A rising tide lifts all boats. The best way to write well is to make it a part of your company culture. The same benefits you get by writing well as an individual will be compounded when everyone approaches communication with care and attention.
The best way to do this is to simply lead by example. Write the way you want your team to communicate. Be clear. Focus on structure. And offer feedback (when asked).
Write the way you want your team to communicate. Be clear. Focus on structure. And offer feedback (when asked).
21. Use prompts and templates to get you started
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when writing even a few sentences is a struggle.
When your writer’s block feels impenetrable, it’s time to take a different motivational approach. Writing prompts and templates make it easier to switch into ‘writing mode’. Instead of a blank page full of options, you get a clear guide for what’s needed of you.
As Stripe’s Documentation Manager, Dave Nunez writes:
“We create docs that offer some of the basics, so engineers aren’t forced to stare at a blank page–which can be terrifying.”
You’ll build your own prompts and templates over time. But to get you started, here are some of our best guides and templates for common project manager writing tasks:
- Risk management plan guide and template
- Meeting notes template
- Project communication plan
- Test plan template and guide
- Lessons learned and knowledge management
- Knowledge base articles
- User stories
- Technical documentation guide and template
- Project proposal guide and template
Finally, break all these rules whenever you see fit
The best writing tip of all is to do what feels right to you. Writing is an art and a science. While these tips can help you master structure, improve clarity, and overcome writer’s block, they should be seen as suggestions, not rules.
The ultimate goal of writing is clarity of thought. If any of these writing tips get in the way of that goal, ditch them!