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Tips for clear and effective written communication

Dave Petrie

Career Consultant at the University of Canterbury
Clear writing can mean the difference between landing your dream role - or not. We talk to Dave Petrie, Career Consultant from the University of Canterbury, to hear his thoughts.
Two young professionals writing

What made you want to become a career advisor?

The short version is a passion for helping people, and in particular, helping them to make good, informed decisions that enable them to live a happy, rewarding and fulfilling life. 

How did you get to your current position and how long have you occupied it? 

To answer this I need to tell you a longer story! Like many teenagers, I left school without any real idea of what I wanted to do. I went to university because I was reasonably capable at school, and my parents, teachers and peers seemed to expect it. I have always had an interest in technology, so started studying computer science, but soon realised that wasn’t for me and ended up graduating with a business degree. I worked for about 7 years in sales and marketing in the electronics industry as a product manager, but while appearing outwardly successful, was feeling increasingly unsettled in this role. Over this time I was also very involved in youth work (unpaid) outside my day job and found this much more rewarding. Eventually, I realised that what I enjoyed most about my job was the people contact, but I needed a role where people would be the main focus, as an end in themselves, rather than a means to the end of selling more products to make more money for my employer.  

I quit my “good job” and spent the next 7 years working for a community trust, working with long term unemployed and at risk youth to help develop their work skills and find meaningful employment. I took an introductory counselling course to enable me to be more effective in this role. I then gained a role as a Career Consultant at Careers NZ (then known as Career Services), where I did a full range of career counselling work, but also had responsibility for supporting career education in secondary schools throughout Canterbury. During this time, I gained a qualification in career development, and membership of the professional body for career practitioners (CDANZ). After 7 years at Careers NZ, the experiences I had gained enabled me to move into my current role of Career Consultant at the University of Canterbury, which I have been in for over 9 years (a new record!).

What does your work involve day-to-day? 

As a Career Consultant at UC, I support students in making good, informed decisions about their future. I work individually with students to help them identify their career and study options, and help with the nuts and bolts of job search, such as writing effective CVs and letters, and preparing for interviews, psychometric testing and assessment centres. I also present a range of seminars and workshops, and contribute to academic programmes with teaching and resources. Keeping up do date with current research and developing new resources is another big part of my role, and in particular, maintaining and developing our online career tools and resources.

Advice for students and graduates

What do you think are the most essential qualities of good written communication?

Using clear, concise English that is grammatically correct and error-free is vital to making a positive, professional impression with an employer in New Zealand. Many students mistakenly believe that using long words, business jargon and complex sentence structure will sound more professional and impress employers. Think again. The writing style used by New Zealand employers is usually very simple and direct, which helps reduce any ambiguity or misunderstanding. Other cultures can have quite different styles, with some preferring a less direct approach, or a more overtly respectful tone to the employer. To an NZ employer, this may seem overly “flowery” or unnecessarily wordy.

An employer often only gives each application an initial scan of 6 to 12 seconds, so you must also have a clear and logical structure to your writing that makes it easy for the employer to quickly find what they are looking for. Think about what will have the biggest positive impact on your reader and order your information accordingly. For example, if you are a new graduate with limited or no directly related experience in your field, then it is likely that the most relevant piece of information is your degree, so we would include this early in the CV.

Dave Petrie works individually with students to help them identify their career and study options.

What are some big taboos when it comes to written communication?

Having spelling or grammar errors in your CV or cover letter is the most effective way of ensuring you don’t progress to an interview. They’re easy to miss, so it is vital that you thoroughly proofread your application documents before you submit them. Even then we can still miss what might seem obvious to others because we can “see” what we wanted to write, rather than what actually made it on to the page.  Where possible, always get someone else to do a final proofread for you. Errors such as “High attention to dateil” may amuse the reader, but are often all that’s required to reject your CV. 

Avoid repetition. We generally try to keep CVs to a maximum length of 2 to 3 pages in NZ, so make sure each word you use is adding value. Work out what you want to say, where the best place is to say it, and say it once as clearly and concisely as possible.  Don’t use ten words to say something if the same meaning can be conveyed in five.

Is there a good way to tell what sort of style is appropriate for the audience? 

Most NZ employers will respond positively to the clear and concise “plain English” style outlined above. Bullet points often fit well within this style and can be particularly appropriate for fields such as engineering, which value accuracy and brevity in their report writing. However, legal firms and some government departments may prefer a more flowing, narrative style, which requires an ability to link sentences and concepts and to structure paragraphs appropriately. The key here is to understand your audience and write in a style that will have the maximum positive impact for that group. Researching your sector online, and using your networks to identify appropriate people in your field to speak with can be very helpful with this.  

Is there a good way to develop a professional writing style?

Understanding what is seen as a professional in your particular field is a crucial starting point. Look at how your peers and colleagues structure their emails and general business correspondence. Read reports and articles written by others in your sector.  Seek feedback from colleagues, supervisors or managers that you can use to continually hone your communication skills over time.

Note that New Zealand English is based on UK English, not American English, so ensure your spell checker language is set correctly.  Eg “organise”, “analyse”, and “programme” are the correct New Zealand spellings, while “organize”, “analyze”, and “program” are American.

How did you learn to become a good written communicator?

This is still a work in progress for me.  Essay writing at school and university was great for developing sound written communication skills, with feedback from teachers and lecturers being very useful in identifying areas to work on. Report writing and creating new resources has been an integral part of most of my work roles and has enabled me to further develop these skills throughout my career. Reading thousands of CVs as part of my work also gives me a good idea of what works and what doesn’t, which I can apply to my own writing.

A word to the wise...

  1. Think about your ideal job and the different elements it would need to contain that would enable you to be happy and fulfilled in your work and in your life.  Then seek opportunities that enable you to try things out and further develop the skills needed to progressively gain jobs that are closer and closer to this “ideal”. Always think of the next step, seek opportunities to challenge and extend yourself, and don’t be afraid to dream big!  Most job advertisements are “aspirational” (describing the “ideal” candidate) so don’t feel that you need to have all of the requirements of a job in order to apply for it.
  2. Find out as much as you can about the jobs in your field. This would include exploring what the jobs involve, what skills you will need to use, and the environment you would be working in.  See how these rate against your “ideal”. 
  3. In the interview, don’t be afraid to interview the interviewer. The employer has a set of needs and requirements that have to be met, and you are putting yourself forward as someone with the skills, experience and personality to meet those needs. The interview can, therefore, be much more of a two-way process than many job seekers think.  They want to know what you have to offer and how you will fit, and you want to be sure that this is an environment where you will thrive.