When you work remotely, a few misplaced words can become an occupational hazard. Without the context of face-to-face cues and body language, every message, sentence, word, and punctuation mark becomes loaded with meaning. Opting for a period over an exclamation mark can be the difference between coming across as helpful or passive aggressive. A well-written request can be the difference between launching a project on time or getting bogged down in endless back-and forths. Every word you type (or don’t) is important in conveying your ideas and communicating effectively with your colleagues.
It’s no wonder “be a strong writer” is one of the first pieces of advice people give to those seeking remote work. But no one ever says how to actually become one. This article is our attempt to make that all-important advice actionable and provide writing tips that work no matter what your job is.
We’ve packed this piece with tactical tips on what “good writing” looks like on a remote team. Writing clearly and concisely is relevant to most workplaces, so many of these tips will apply even if you’re not part of a distributed team. But the stakes are even higher when the majority of your team communication happens remotely in writing.
We’ll cover our best advice on writing effectively and break down how these rules can be used in all contexts from casual chats to constructive feedback to company announcements and more.
Write How You Speak
Professionalism is not a synonym for formality. Write messages and memos at work with care, but skip stilted language that feels inaccessible. Remember you’re writing for humans; robot-speak is not the way to collaborate effectively or build relationships at work.
- Use the simplest word available. This can be especially important on a global team where English is a second language for many. Complex words often obscure your message or may have your readers stopping halfway to google a term. Switch “utilized” to “use” and “communicated” to “said”.
- Keep it casual. While there’s a place and time for formality, in most cases it’s best to use laid-back language. For instance, avoid stuffy salutations (e.g. trade “To All [Workplace] Employees” with “Hey Everyone” in company announcements).
- Write using contractions. This helps your writing sound like everyday speech. Opt for “it’s, there’s, and hasn’t” instead of “it is, there is, has not”.
Writing Tip for Small Group Messages and DMs
Connecting with teammates remotely, particularly through text, can be challenging. Casual banter that resembles your voice in water cooler group chats or direct messages helps break down walls. This could be CAPS LOCK to speak emphatically, italics to exercise your sarcasm muscle, and ~flourishes~ to demonstrate irony. Don’t be afraid of emojis, memes, and gifs that infuse fun into work. Read Gretchen McCulloch’s “We Learned to Write the Way We Talk” for insight on how flexible language can be the key to both connection.
When drafting a message, say exactly what you mean. Don’t obscure your message with bad writing habits that only bring you further away from what you’re trying to say.
- Follow (mostly) the rules of grammar. Get your message across by following a few basic language guidelines. For example, know the difference between a sentence and a fragment, get “their”, “they’re”, and “there” right, and be mindful of punctuation. When you’re unsure, do a quick google search or use a tool like Grammarly to help avoid grammar gaffes altogether. On the flip side, it can be okay to break the rules. Sometimes. Occasionally break from form to convey emphasis or highlight an idea, but do so with a purpose in mind.
- Avoid bizspeak. Stay away from “bizspeak” that sounds smart but is frequently cliche or meaningless. Check out Harvard Business Review’s “Bizspeak Blacklist” for the most common offenders including words and phrases like “synergy”, “value-add”, and “operationalize”.
- Don’t use acronyms or jargon. Acronyms and jargon are so-called shortcuts that can actually take your teammates a longer time to understand. They assume a base-level of knowledge or a common understanding that may not actually exist. On remote teams where members span countries and cultures, developing a common vocabulary through fully-formed words and articulated ideas is crucial.
- Minimize cliches and idioms. Often these expressions are region-specific; using them on a global team can fall flat or may even be culturally insensitive. Stay away from business phrases like “trim the fat”, “bang for our buck”, “open the kimono”.
Writing Tips for Documentation
Documentation is often the first touch point into your company for new hires. It’s especially important to employ the rules of writing clearly so joining team members can learn quickly and don’t feel silly asking questions like, “What is ARR?” or “What’s a North Star Metric?”
Take the guesswork and googling out of reading your company’s guides on submitting invoices, hiring contract staff, or anything else that’s documented in writing. If you must use acronyms, ensure that a glossary and relevant context is also provided.
Be precise with your language and don’t leave room for guesswork. Keep your teammates nodding along rather than squinting in confusion.
- Keep it short. Don’t use more words than you need to.
- Cut out unnecessary words. Be mindful of filler words that detract from your message and make your writing harder to read. These can be words like “essentially, basically, or just” that feel redundant. Alternatively, it can be adverbs like “really, very, or extremely” that aren’t effective for being descriptive or conveying importance.
- Be mindful of qualifiers. While many advise against qualifiers completely, on a remote team, phrases like “in my opinion” or “I think” can go a long way in infusing warmth and humility into your conversations with colleagues. However, be mindful that when used in excess they make you sound unsure and undermine your credibility. Opt for them when you’re providing feedback and leave them out when you’re making an important point in a discussion.
Writing Tips for Changing Hearts and Minds
Whether you’re pitching a project or making a case for a company-wide change, writing concisely will help you sound more convincing. Get out your key points instead of rambling and present a written argument that’s polished and confident.
Get to the Point
Recognize that you only have your teammates’ attention for so long. Dive right in without taking detours or rambling about the unrelated.
- Open with your key point. Attention spans are fleeting and people want to be gripped from the start. When writing a message, think clearly about the overall point you’re trying to make to your colleagues. Lead with that. This is especially the case with bad news; anything other than ripping of the band-aid can come off as evasive. Try making your key point your opening sentence or the title of a thread. For additional emphasis, use bold font. Read up on the BLUF (bottom line up front) method for additional insight on putting your best idea forward.
Writing Tips for Meeting Notes
Remote work isn’t all writing. It also includes video or audio calls. Pre-meeting prep is helpful to make the most of these virtual gatherings. This often means writing and dispersing information before a meeting. Go beyond a simple agenda. Instead write out key objectives of the meeting and add any relevant context that gets everyone up to speed. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos asks executives to write and read six-page memos before a meeting so everyone is on the page.
With people spread across time zones, it’s also helpful to summarize synchronous conversations so they can be consumed asynchronously. Lead with key takeaways from the meeting rather than writing a minute-by-minute transcript of a call.
- Try a tl;dr. Most commonly a lazy person’s plea for summation online, a tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) can be repurposed for writing on remote teams. After writing a long post, add a short summary (1-2 sentences) at the start to condense your message and provide a preview of what’s to come.
- Be bold. Often on remote teams, without face-to-face time to work things out, conversations can get stuck. Be bold and provide concise suggestions on moving projects forward instead of letting them sit in limbo. Bold writing will win you the reputation of an un-blocker and problem solver.
Writing Tips for Specific Requests
Making your ask upfront can feel transactional. However, it makes for clearer communication and helps everyone effectively prioritize their workload when you provide key information right away, include deliverables, timeline, and a deadline with your request. Find the balance of being gracious when making requests of colleagues while also being clear and explicit with what you need.
Use the Rules of Storytelling
Borrow tips and tricks from writers and storytellers who understand how to make words leap off the page and how to craft the perfect narrative.
- Choose your medium carefully. Great storytellers think about the best medium to convey a message: pages, audio waves, a stage, or the big screen. Likewise, be intentional about the modes of communication you choose. While many remote teams default to asynchronous communication and do most ideation and collaboration in writing, recognize when a call on Zoom or a quick phone call is a better medium for discussion. For instance, critical feedback about job performance is best delivered face-to-face.
- Know your audience. Switch up how you write based on your audience. You might adopt a casual tone for DMs and small group chats that includes sentence fragments, emojis, and gifs. As a general rule, adopt an increasingly polished tone the more people are involved in a discussion.
- Use active voice instead of passive voice. This is a literary device that makes writing interesting. Luckily, it can be adopted for a business setting for writing that’s direct instead of evasive. For example, say “We made a partnership with Canoeist” vs “A partnership was made with Canoeist”.
- Repetition is your friend. Authors often use repetition as a writing tool to underscore a point. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself throughout your own writing to emphasize the significance of a key point. Really, it never hurts to repeat yourself.
- Use sentence variation. Rotate between short and long sentences to make your writing engaging, especially when you’re penning something lengthy. Add short snappy sentences. Don’t drone on and on and on and on and on.
Writing Tips for Internal Memos
Internal memos don’t have to be boring. Because they’re generally directed at the entire company, they’re an opportunity to use storytelling tactics that keep your writing interesting and engaging.
Employ active voice and sentence variation to keep your team members’ attention and close off with an ending that ties to your company’s wider goals or mission.
- Stick to one idea per paragraph. Think of each paragraph as conveying a different idea or point. If a paragraph can’t stand on its own, remove it from your writing.
- Use chronology. Follow a linear timeline when writing business communication like internal memos or post-mortems. Avoid non-linear communication that jumps from place to place, leaving your colleagues confused and trying to put together the pieces.
- Have a satisfying ending. For remote teams, online conversations can span a few hours or a few years! This can mean hundreds of posts to read through when you’re trying to find answers or understand how a decision was made. In the moment, keep your future self in mind, and close off discussions with a final decision or summary of the conversation.
Writing Tips for Post-Mortems
Writing a post-mortem ––summarizing a project’s successes, failures, and suggestions for next time–– is a great form of group reflection. These summaries are helpful to look back on and are especially prescient for a team’s newcomers.
Try to explain the project chronologically, from start to finish, and succinctly describe any conclusions that arose.
Write With Care
On a remote team, you’ll get to know your teammates primarily through writing. Be mindful that writing on a screen leaves much more room for interpretation than speaking face to face. Use your words to demonstrate kindness, positivity, honesty, and a collaborative spirit.
- Acknowledge messages. One of the plus sides of asynchronous communication is time to reflect before responding to a message, often resulting in a more thoughtful response. However, don’t leave your teammates hanging. If you need more time to respond to a message, let them know.
- Respond with positivity. Be encouraging of your teammates and be liberal with phrases like “great job” and “thank you!” Take every opportunity you can to lift up your colleagues.
- Avoid negative assumptions. If you’re starting sentences to your colleagues with “You probably haven’t…” or “It’s likely you didn’t…”, you may be in dangerous territory. Presumptive phrases have a way of backfiring; your assumptions can be incorrect. Rather than speculating, simply ask neutral or positive questions. (e.g. Use “Are you getting close to finishing that proposal” rather than “You’re probably not finished with that proposal…”)
Writing Tips for Providing Feedback
Providing feedback on someone’s work or ideas is one of the best times to practice writing with care. Let your teammate know that you appreciate their work and highlight positive aspects of what they’ve presented. Make sure to also provide honest feedback in a tone that doesn’t feel negative or flippant.
- Provide background information and context. Another assumption gaffe is presuming someone has all the same information as you. Counteract this common misstep by providing all the context and information you can upfront. If you’re explaining something complex, provide links to relevant documents or discussions. Planning a meeting? Make sure you include the relevant time zones when suggesting meeting times. Make it easy for someone to respond to you with minimal back-and-forth.
- Think about timing. In person, you can “read the room”. It’s generally not the time to discuss the office Christmas party after a round of lay-offs at work. There’s a digital equivalent. Be mindful of following bad news too closely with good news or vice-versa. If absolutely necessary, make sure to acknowledge the sudden change in tone (e.g. “Unfortunately, I have to shift gears to something less positive…”)
- Write honestly and transparently. Remote work has its issues and can leave people feeling isolated. This can result in anxiety and paranoia regarding work, leading many to naturally assume the worst. Counteract this possible downside by writing with complete honesty and transparency. Let people know when they’re doing a great job and simultaneously make radical candor and critical feedback a normal part of work. Keep most conversations public and default to open threads versus closed DMs.
- Be mindful of tone. When it comes to conveying tone online, punctuation placement is particularly important. There’s a vast difference between “Okay.” and “Okay!” While littering your online communication with exclamation marks, emojis, and gifs isn’t a catchall for giving your writing warmth, keep them as a tool in your back pocket to use sparingly to make your communication light and friendly.
Writing Tips for Project and Status Updates
Written project and status updates are effective for keeping everyone in the loop rather than coordinating meetings across time zones. It’s particularly important to “write honestly”, bringing up any roadblocks or delays that will impact the project timeline.
Edit and Proofread
Switch from writer to editor before hitting “send” on posts to your colleagues to ensure you get the right message across.
- Spell check is your friend. Spelling mistakes can undermine your message and give the impression that your message was rushed and random instead of careful and intentional. Rid important messages of spelling mistakes by using a browser with a built-in spell check, downloading a tool like Grammarly, or composing in an application such as Stickies or Google Docs.
- Get an external review. Tap team members for a review of writing you’re unsure about or a message that may go out to a wide audience. The goal isn’t editing by committee, but rather addressing any blind spots you may have missed.
- Let it sit. If possible, don’t start key discussions in a rush. Instead, draft a thread and come back to it in a few days with fresh eyes. You may decide it’s publish-ready or could use some tweaks.
Writing Tips for Company Announcements
When you’re sending a message to your entire team or department, make sure you do a double-check or even a triple-check. In cases where a company announcement involves a sweeping change, ask a colleague or two to review your writing before sending it out to everyone. It may also benefit from a review by different departments.
Big announcements can also benefit from reflection; set writing aside for a few days and come back to it before the final send out.
On a remote team, you’ll use writing for nearly everything: providing feedback, making requests, getting to know your teammates, and sharing your ideas.
In office environments, it’s often the opinions shouted the loudest that win in the end. Remote environments even the playing field: it’s the best idea, articulated with clarity of thought, that captures attention. You’ll accomplish more if you stay mindful of common communication blunders, and intentionally hone your writing skills.
How you communicate through writing with your colleagues will determine if you’re ready to lead projects and people. The way you convey ideas will either make them fall flat or spring to life.
When you’re staring down a blank page or an empty text field, waiting for the words to come, make sure you’re finding the right ones.