Skill Development Part II: Clear Written Communication

This is part two of a Second Day series on skill development at nonprofits. We believe that skill development often occurs through the 70/20/10 model: 10% formal training/learning, 20% coaching/feedback, and 70% challenging assignments.This article provides some resources to supplement any training that your organization provides and touches on ways to progress the other two pieces.

Clear written communication

Professional written communication is a staple of any successful career. No matter your role, you should be able to write a clear and effective email or short memo. Consider that it's often the only contact someone will have with you and it may be key to how you're received by your team. Whether you write all day or only occasionally, we believe these five principles will help significantly improve your writing.

Five keys to clear written communication

  1. Put the reader first. Before starting to write, consider a few questions. Why am I writing this email? What does the person reading it currently think? How will this email get them from A to B?

  2. Structure thoughtfully. Most people are in a rush and just start writing. They include all of their thoughts and hit send after reading it through quickly. Instead, create a quick outline of the key points you want to make and how they should be structured to ensure that your logic flow is clean and clear.

  3. Bottom Line on Top (BLOT). This practice is commonly seen in newspapers. Journalists start with a headline, provide another level of context in the the first paragraph, and then provide a lot more detail in the article itself. You should plan to write the vast majority of your emails in this style. Present your request or key takeaway at the beginning and then follow with necessary context.

  4. Proofread. This is so simple but vastly underrated. For almost every email you send, take the time to read through the whole thing again. If possible, change the view a bit (zoom, bold, font size, print it out, etc.) to give it a fresh take. If you’re writing a significant memo or email, we recommend stepping away to complete another task for a bit and then returning to it with fresh eyes. Typos undermine the legitimacy of your arguments and are easily avoidable.

  5. Invest in your writing clarity. There is no quick fix for this, but writing clarity will be a strong asset throughout your career. Consider taking an online course or asking someone at your organization for their best practices and coaching. I personally found this course from Udemy helpful:

How to put this to practice


Feedback from a good writer is critical to improving your writing. This is both so that you can get a more objective take on it and also to remind you to practice these habits. Two easy ways to work on this:

  • Find someone at your organization who you think is a good writer. It could be your boss, or it could be someone else. Explain that this is a growth goal of yours and that you would love their feedback on your writing. Sit down with them ~monthly, print out some of your longer pieces of writing, and ask for their feedback.

  • Find a peer at your organization to be your accountability buddy. Ask them for feedback on your writing and offer to do the same for them.

Challenging assignments

Unlike many of the other skills we will cover, you will likely have the opportunity to write all the time. The key is intentionality:

  • Take advantage of even the simplest opportunities. Even if it’s a short email to someone on your team, use it to practice applying these principles.

  • Re-visit these goals every few weeks. Assess your own writing and ask yourself whether you are applying these key principles.

  • Look for opportunities for longer pieces of writing or more complicated messages. This could be a grant proposal, a slide deck, or anything peripheral to your work. This will give you even more runway to flex these skills.

Phil Dearing