As organizations increasingly rely on intranets, portals, blogs and wikis to disseminate business information to employees, they need technology professionals who can write concise, clear and engaging prose. By Mathew Schwartz | December 2008
Will writing chops help secure a technology job? You bet. According to a 2007 Society for Information Management survey of tech hiring managers, written and oral communication skills are the third-most desired aptitude for entry- and mid-level hires. But knowing how to communicate well isn't a static discipline, especially as businesses  adopt new tools to foster collaboration and disseminate business information. [youtube] Furthermore, thanks to content management software, companies are delegating content creation responsibilities to employees on the front lines. Given the importance of  technology, it's not surprising the IT group is among the departments called upon to wrangle a significant amount of intranet content. For some techies, this new requirement may instill panic. Unversed in crafting content, they suddenly find their writing on "how to order laptops for new hires" and "the top 10 essential security policies employees must know" digested by thousands of fellow cube-dwellers, not to mention senior managers. Accordingly, there's a growing need for technology professionals to contribute grab-you-by-the-lapels, or at least clear and concise, content to their organization's intranet, portal, corporate blog or wiki. Here, then, are five ways to make your intranet writing sing. Master the Basics Remember to always address what writers refer to as who, what, where, why, when and how when writing for the intranet. To ensure readers absorb this information:
  • Put the goodies up top: Begin articles with the most important piece of information. (In journalism, this is known as the "inverse pyramid" principle. For an excellent primer, see Jakob Nielsen's free Writing for the Web). Of course, this is the opposite of how most people learn to write in school, which is to pose a question and then build to the answer. Busy readers, however, won¿t grant you that luxury.
  • Package: Like it or not, the headline, subheadings and especially visuals often relay 95  percent of your message. Choose them well, and always use pictures of actual people in your organization. Avoid stock photos, which readers find disengaging.
  • Emphasize: Selectively bold face the most important phrases and ideas. Also consider "chunking" content into more readable and "scannable" sidebars and bullet lists (like this one).
  • Engage: Befriend action verbs and active tenses.
  • Economize: Keep the content on each page short and relevant. Avoid digressions.
Get Inspired Need to captivate readers with seemingly dry information? Luckily, we live in a golden age of technology writing talent. For starters, try techie Cory Doctorow, privacy guru Bruce Schneier, The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, and the New York Times' David Pogue (whose iPhone music video is masterful). Use their writing and delivery for inspiration. True, you may not script, film and post a 60-second musical starring your singing CEO about the perils of leaving a laptop physically unsecured at work. Or then again: Respect the Intranet - and Grandma
Increasingly, the intranet is the face of the organization. So treat it with respect. When you address a general audience, write like you're explainingsomething to your grandmother. (And no, not the one with the Ph.D. in computational linguistics.) Of course, your content can still have attitude and style, though what flies may depend on your corporate culture. Befriend a Writing Coach - and End Users Need to brush up on your writing? Want someone to vet content before it goes live? Some organizations have dedicated writing coaches. If yours doesn't, see if there's anyone available in-house to help, such as an intranet editor who may already run content- creation seminars. (Arguably, the organizations with the best intranets employ editors to vet and "punch up" content and packaging before it goes live.) Or ask your manager to enlist a writing coach for a one-day workshop. Whenever possible, get to know some end users (aka your audience). Solicit their feedback on individual pieces of intranet writing. Then work to make your writing better. Make Managers Prioritize Usability Good writing, together with excellent usability (meaning a site design that lets users find what they're looking for) makes for a killer intranet. Accordingly, managers should work with usability professionals when designing or redesigning. Produce a good intranet information architecture and front-line employees will have a much easier time creating and maintaining relevant and engaging content. Intranet Writing Checklist Is your writing:
  • Accessible? Studiously avoid jargon and acronym
  • Articulate? Never confuse "its" (possessive) with "it's"(contraction)
  • Clear? Prioritize good grammar
  • Scrupulous? Spell-check everything (because in this age of browsers with built-in spell checkers, anything less signals laziness or incompetence)
  • Concise? Edit, then edit again
Mathew Schwartz writes about business and technology from his base in Pennsylvania.