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Tips for clear and effective written communication

Lynn Elesy

Careers Commentator
Good writing can mean the difference between landing your dream graduate role – or not.

Effective written communication in your graduate CV and cover letter

Using good, concise English is key to getting and holding the attention of graduate recruiters. Many students mistakenly believe that using long words and business jargon is the way to impress employers. Think again. Simple and direct is the best way to write a CV, cover letter or address selection criteria. According to the Australian Association of Graduate Employers, 'Written communication skills are ranked as quite or very important to 82 per cent of employers.' '

Make 'plain English' your friend. The Plain English Campaign, a response to official documents that couldn’t be understood by normal people, has filtered across all continents and all areas of writing – organisations including the New South Wales and South Australian governments are actively campaigning to stamp out incorrect or excessively bureaucratic wording to ensure that everyone gets the message – and quickly.

Although most people wouldn’t actually use the phrase 'plain English’, the best writers in all fields of life use it, knowingly or not. As a graduate job candidate, writing with clarity is a simple but powerful way of getting noticed by employers. It is not about banning long words or making your writing sound less professional – you can be formal without being fussy.

The art of communication

Clear writing involves presenting information that can be easily read, understood and acted upon by the intended audience. Recruiters don’t have time to spend trying to work out what you have to say. If you are lucky, they will quickly read through all your paperwork once.

Does 'I am contacting you with regards to the position advertised by yourselves' sound like the way you usually talk?

How about 'I am writing about the job you advertised'?  

Save time and space

The average graduate recruiter has a limited amount of time. Plain English helps them to get your message quickly. An application form has a limited amount of space. Plain English helps you to use this space effectively. 

Don’t base your writing on old-school habits. The academic system leads people to write in a complicated manner. This often results in:

  • starting sentences with longwinded clauses such as 'considering that the point in question is relatively straightforward, the fact remains that greed is good ..'. It would be simpler and shorter to write, 'greed is good'.
  • bureaucratic language, such as 'in the event that' instead of  'if' and 'with respect to' instead of 'about'.
  • padding out verbs, for example, 'a good leader must inspire'. It would be simpler and shorter to write, 'a good leader inspires'.
  • grandiose statements involving 'to be' as in 'in a manager’s role there’s a substantial amount of prioritising to be done'. It would be simpler, shorter and more interesting to write, 'a manager juggles priorities'.
  • redundancies, such as 'in the process of addressing', rather than 'addressing'.

Keep it short and to the point

Think about what you actually want to say, then say it. Be as specific as possible. It will look shorter because there aren’t as many words, but it will contain more information and increase your chances of getting reviewed.

Short words, short sentences and short paragraphs help readability. Cut your word count in half, and then make another cut. 

A graduate recruitment manager from Herbert Smith Freehills said, 'Use your cover letter to demonstrate your communication skills. Keep it concise, punchy and no more than a page – long-winded paragraphs are not appealing to recruiters or partners''. 

Use the most straightforward words you can find. Banish long clauses, repetition and any other waffle. Buzzwords and clichés are so overused that you can only gain by cutting them out. However, do include language specific to the company and industry you are targeting. 

Get the grammar right

If you’re not confident about grammar, ask someone to proofread all your documents. Here are some basics that will help you avoid the most common mistakes:

  • A sentence should end with a full stop, not a comma.
  • Use an apostrophe for possessives (the company’s products), not for plurals (the companies), but remember the possessive ‘its’ does not have an apostrophe.
  • Avoid using capital letters – this includes university, government, graduate program and job titles. Unless it's the name of a person or organisation, you don’t usually need a capital letter in the middle of a sentence. 
  • Organize (and similar) is the American spelling. The Australian version is 'organise'.
  • And finally, don’t rely solely on your spellchecker. Ever.  

Verbs are your friends 

When you are writing about your work experience, verbs – words that say what you have done – are critical. Put verbs near the beginning of the sentence. And make sure your verbs have punch: the easiest way to draw attention is to use 'active' verbs. 'Our team produced a new product' is snappier than 'a new product was produced by our team'; 'I was involved in the implementation of new projects', sounds a lot better as 'I implemented projects'.

Avoid abstracts

An easy way to shorten your sentences is to be brutal with nominalisations. For example, replace 'I was involved with the implementation of projects' with 'I implemented projects' for an instant word reduction. It sounds better too.