Types of Written Communication
Written communication is a core aspect of life and is especially important in the workplace. Read on to learn how to effectively communicate over Slack, email, or docs.
I know, you must have groaned internally when you read the name of this post.
Is this guy really about to tell me to write more? But I hate writing!
Your inner monologue
Yep, most engineers are not huge fans of writing, and probably very much disliked Humanities or GE courses in college where grades were determined by papers. But trust me, this is a really good skill to have.
You can breathe a sigh of relief though because the subject of this post is not about poetry, or short stories (although you should definitely write those if that interests you). Rather, we are going to discuss written communication, whether that be in the form of Slack messages, emails, or docs (technically presentations can have written content too, but your slides shouldn't just be walls of text!).
I am also laughing internally as I write this because it's kind of a meta post. I am writing about written communication 🤣.
Why is written communication important?
Before we get into tips and tricks for writing over different media, maybe a brief discussion of why written communication is so important would be beneficial.
As you begin your professional career, or even if you are already a few years in, you will be amazed by how much information you will have to learn from written stuff. You will definitely learn from asking questions and talking to people, but the majority of the content you will learn (and indeed, the way you will unblock yourself) will come from reading.
Think about how frustrating it is to read a guide or textbook that doesn't help you. Or to read documentation that doesn't get you any closer to being able to write code.
Now think about receiving ambiguous messages from people, where the messages don't include enough context or are super confusing to understand. I'm sure that is quite annoying in group projects (which, by the way, you will have a lot of in the workplace).
In both of the above cases, your lack of understanding is not your fault. It is entirely due to ineffective written communication. So if the whole point of written communication is to be able to relay information to others, why is it that we really don't have this muscle developed? I'd argue that it's because we were never really taught it well.
Characteristics of Effective Writing
Effective writing means a couple things in my opinion. First, and more importantly, it means that you are imparting sufficient meaning to some audience, such that the recipients have as close to full understanding as possible. Secondly, it requires that you have consideration of how that audience prefers to receive information and respond.
The first point encompasses things like:
Is the message ambiguous?
Does the message offer a clear call to action (or, step that the recipient should take)?
Note: An FYI is a "call to action" too, but it means "no action required"
The second point encompasses things like:
Does the recipient like bulleted lists, or diagrams, or both?
Which communication platforms does the recipient use?
You'll have to weigh both of these points in order to ensure effective written communication, and it will definitely feel like a chore at first. But with practice, this will become second nature to you for each person and group you work with. Once you can weigh these points, you then need to decide which communication platforms to use.
Slack/Other Instant Messaging
Ok, this is probably the place where you will share GIFs and memes more than actual work content 🤣. But, chat platforms are incredibly important because a lot of communication is done within them. Most tech companies use Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Chat if they have Google Workspace.
Try to be concise over instant messaging. The people you are sending messages to are likely receiving messages from other coworkers and they're rapidly switching back and forth between all threads. If you start a conversation with someone over instant messaging and the result of the conversation is a small amount of immediate action items, then you're probably okay continuing over instant message. However, if a lot of stuff is decided and/or if the action items are not immediate, you will likely have to document this somewhere.
Enter the next communication medium.
The granddaddy of them all: EMAIL. Everyone's inbox is just inundated with emails. I mean, think about it. Have you ever heard anyone say "I have no unread emails"? No, likely not.
Email has been a staple of digital communication in the workplace for decades. Over time though, the types of emails people have received in a work setting have changed. Where they used to be primarily human-driven, the majority of emails that tech employees receive nowadays tend to come from automated bots. And these bots are constantly alerting about integration test results, code submissions, capacity quotas, and more things you can ignore.
I'm half kidding. Make sure to set up email filters so that you do pay attention to the stuff that matters 😁.
Even with this inbox inundation, emails can still be a very effective form of written communication for documenting decisions made in person or over instant messaging.
Emails also can be easily forwarded and have the advantage of allowing for distinct named groups of people to be looped in. This makes them very good for announcing new products and processes, or to just keep people informed.
However, emails are not the place to write multi-page tech specs. This is where docs come in.
When I say "docs", I mean any place where the focus is on more long-form written communication. This can be literally Google Docs, or Markdown documentation pages within your company intranet. And if your company uses both, great! Learn about the conventions for use of each type and apply them accordingly. For now though, I'm gonna focus on Google Docs.
Any time you write a Google Doc, you need to pay attention to structure of your content, as well as typography and readability.
For structure, it is best to think ahead of time about what you want to say. Sometimes coming up with an outline is a great way to prepare to write a doc.
In fact, whenever I am writing a doc, whether it be a tech spec, PRD (Product Requirements Doc), retrospective, or post-mortem, I add in headers for each of the sections I want to discuss because that gives me a roadmap for my thoughts. The headers are effectively my "outline".
For typography, don't use an obscure font. If your company has a doc template, use that. If not, Arial is tried and true (but maybe use a bit more creativity: go for Roboto 😁). Some other recommendations:
Make sure your line spacing is not too small.
Change font size and styling (italics, bold, underline, etc.) between header text and paragraph text.
Readability is the hardest aspect of doc writing because it's very subjective. But there are some things you can do to make your docs flow naturally, even if they're super long:
Consider writing paragraphs that are no longer than 5 lines. You don't want your readers' eyes to glaze over. The same content across 2 paragraphs is actually easier to read than if it were in one mega paragraph.
If there is a process you are describing, try to make it a numbered or bulleted list. This is related to the point above.
Include diagrams (can be done with Google Drawings or Lucidchart, if your company uses that). Many people are visual learners.
Have a header hierarchy. Not all headers should be at the same level. If you can subdivide your content into a hierarchy, your reader can follow your thought progression, as though it's a structured narrative. Also, in a tool like Google Docs, to the left of the content, there is normally an auto-generated outline which provides an overview to the reader.
What about using multiple mediums?
Good question! This is actually a very good thing to do. You can easily link a doc within an email, or within a Slack message. And you can even link docs to...other docs. It's pretty common when you are writing tech specs to have Background sections that link other docs to provide more context to the reader.
But don't go link-crazy. Links are great if they are providing more context to the reader, but they can very easily overwhelm. Readers that have to read a bunch of linked docs will eventually have to connect everything they read to the doc you actually wanted them to read and that's a daunting task. Also, they may just not click on the links.
So if I'm linking something important, a technique I use is to include a 1 or 2 sentence summary with the most relevant takeaway from the linked doc.
Holy moly, that was a lot of content above.
Summary of the main points:
Try to envision what it would be like to be on the recipient end for the content that you are writing. Focus your efforts on delivering meaning clearly.
There are many different tools for written communication. Slack, email, and docs are made for different purposes though. Make sure to pick the best one for the kind of content you want to share, as well as what is preferred by your audience.
Written communication is hard, but with practice you will grow this muscle.