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All. The biggest area I am working right now is to improve my written communications skills. It’s a tough skill to learn but a good one to have, since most of what we do is exchange email with our clients. I personally find people do not have time to read down through a long email string so I want to send my email clearly that would make sense to my recipients.

My major concern is that I do not know how to organize my thoughts and translate them into a well-structured e-mail. How do I collect my thoughts and get them on screen in a way that makes sense to someone who will not know my intent?

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Welcome. This question is currently very broad. Please give us more information - where do you feel that you are lacking? What are you trying to improve? What have you already tried? You can click the edit link under your question to add information. –  justkt Sep 22 '11 at 20:01
    
I think my thoughts are not organized. How can I make my mind think like an outline? Is there a book? How can I change the way I think at work? –  user614 Sep 22 '11 at 22:03
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Am I the only one seeing the irony here? –  Neil Fein Sep 23 '11 at 4:01
    
How do you organize your thoughts? Try mind-mapping or another similar technique, even if it's on a post-it. Even a small one of these can be helpful. –  Neil Fein Sep 27 '11 at 3:37
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5 Answers

You have several choices, and which one you use depends on the length of the document to be written, the subject matter, and your personal preferences. All sections here are examples of the technique they describe.

Outlining

The outline of this answer would look like this:

  1. Introduction - mention options
  2. Outlining - explain, give example
  3. Infodump - vomit it all onto the page, organize, edit
  4. [x]-paragraph essay
  5. Combinations, summary

You would then go back and use this as a guide to write the sections. (Keen eyes will notice I didn't stick to this: I decided after writing all this out that section 3 worked better after section 4, since it relies on having more experience with writing. But it was a good place to start.)

The [x]-paragraph essay

We learned this in high school (possibly earlier), and it's a great way to get used to writing in an organized way. It forces you to think about what you want to say, but it can be a bit of a straitjacket. The first one we were taught was the three-paragraph essay.

The first paragraph is where you write the basic idea, very much a generalization of the ideas you want to get across. You're also framing the rest of the essay, creating a lens through which the reader will see all subsequent text. Note that you're reading this with foreknowledge that it's a technique taught to children, since I mentioned that in the above paragraph. Decades after leaving school, I still find the technique useful for smaller pieces. Even if I usually don't stick to a set number of paragraphs.

The three-paragraph essay scales well to the five-paragraph essay, and beyond. I wrote this section as a three-paragraph essay, but that middle paragraph really wants to be two paragraphs - but it's a good place to start. Thinking about writing in this way can discipline you well.

Write like a madman, but sort it out later

While writing an outline can help for some people, and having a paragraph structure in mind works for some stuff, these don't work for everybody or at all times.

When the outline approach isn't working--it rarely does for me with anything less than a few thousand words--an infodump may be what you need.

Type out everything you want to say. Don't worry about structure yet, just write out all the points you want to make. Then, read it over and decide what the main points are you want to say. Write a introduction and/or conclusion, as appropriate, then organize the rest of it into the "middle" of the piece. Summarize, proofread, and you're done.

This may not seem like much of a writing technique. What you're doing here is giving yourself permission to freewrite on a topic, with the knowledge that you'll organize it all later. Great for short projects or more creative work.

Summary

You'll probably find yourself picking and choosing from these techniques, and possibly others as well. My favorite technique is the infodump combined with some quick outlining, although I pay careful attention to paragraph length and structure along the way.

In the end, try different tools, use the ones that work, and let them influence your thinking. Eventually, you'll do much of this without thinking about it. Using disciplines like these trains your brain.

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Have expanded on this answer here with a blog post. –  Neil Fein Oct 2 '11 at 2:23
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Welcome user614.

You're asking a good question, and if I may restate it: How do I write an effective business e-mail?

Like most writing questions, it comes to how you think about the task. And this is the key, to think before you write.

Why are you writing? What exactly do you want?

To whom are you writing? What do you know about them, their expectations, needs?

Is there a timeframe for action? Is there a consequence for missing the timeframe?

What are your main points? Reduce these to the least number possible and state each as simply as possible.

Draft an outline and then fill it in as necessary.

Be polite. Be simple. Be honest. Be accurate.

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You can try a Business Writing textbook, looking through the most promising sections.

One example is Collins English for Business: Writing by Nick Brieger.

This brand new self-study book is the ideal way for business people to refine and perfect their written English. It is aimed particularly at executives who communicate in written English frequently or work in foreign or multinational companies.

Twenty 4-page units featuring key areas, such as Getting the Right Tone, Linking Ideas, Writing Quickly and Simply, Dealing with Difficult Issues and Editing the Language.

Collins English for Business is a new series of self-study skills books which focus on the language you really need to do business in English – wherever you are in the world. Each title includes tips on how to communicate effectively and how to communicate inter-culturally.

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I find working backwards helps. I start by writing out the main points I want to get across. No detail, just something short and simple. "I need Document X from you. I need Graphic Y from you."

Then fill out more details under each.

I need Document X from you.
It should be in draft form
I need it by Wednesday at noon.
Ensure you cc: Person 1, Person 2, Person 3

Repeat for each point. From there you should be able to structure it into paragraphs, or if it suits you better, phrase it nicely but keep it in bullet points.

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Try to use bullet list form. As you have said people don't have the time to sit through and read long emails. If you are having trouble being concise use bullet lists and limit each bullet to a particular topic or point you want to make.

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