In freelancing, business, schooling, and any professional work, being able to effectively communicate through writing is very important, if not essential. Especially in situations like applications, interviews, cover letters, resumes, and other forms of professional communication, your writing style and quality say a lot about you before your potential employer even really meets you. Many things can make writing come across as unprofessional, and in this article, we'll talk about how to avoid some of them.
Writing that conveys unprofessionalism can have any number of things wrong with it, and the following elements are often a source of mistakes.
Punctuation: When writing, punctuation is very important, and it serves many functions. It can indicate tone, break up a sentence so it's easier to read, and guide the reader's "head voice." When proofreading, make sure all your punctuation is correct -- barring generational habits like the Oxford comma or putting two spaces after a period, there is a right and wrong way to punctuate writing.
Avoid long, rambling sentences with no punctuation. Varying your sentence length is good, and it gives a better flow to your writing, but making sentences too long can make them confusing and hard to follow.
Capitalization: Certain words are capitalized, and certain ones are not. In creative writing, there's a lot more leeway with this, since capitalizing words (or not) can be a stylistic choice; but in professional writing, it's best to avoid this, and stick to the general rules.
Always capitalize the first word after a period, at the beginning of a new paragraph, and at the beginning of a new bullet point or list item.
Capitalize names, including the names of people, places, organizations, brands or branded products, etc.
Remember which words are sometimes capitalized. English as a language likes to break its own rules, and sometimes, words are capitalized depending on their meaning. Below are some examples.
If you're talking about the planet that humans live on, "Earth" is capitalized, because it's the name of a place. If you're talking about the ground or the dirt (e.g. "the farmer salted the earth") then it isn't.
As a name, "Smith" is capitalized (e.g. "John Smith") but as a profession (e.g. "the smith bought metal") it isn't.
Spelling: If you're writing on a computer in any kind of word processor, spelling mistakes are trivially easy to avoid. Even many chat room-style processors have basic spellcheck, and major word processors like Google Docs or Word have advanced spelling and grammar-checking algorithms; some will even notify you of incorrect punctuation. Beyond that, most major web browsers (Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari, etc) have extensions like Grammarly that will check all of your text everywhere, even if there's no built-in spellcheck where you're typing. At this point, spelling errors have become almost inexcusable in professional writing because of how easy they are to fix.
Spellcheck can be wrong, but most of the time it isn't. If something doesn't sound or look quite right, it's always worth it to check using Google or another spellchecker.
Slang: Slang is a catch-all term used for colloquial, informal words, terms, or phrases. Think things like "lit," "salty," "shook," and "low/high key." Slang terms should generally be avoided in professional writing, if not because they come across as informal then because the people reading whatever you're writing might not understand what you mean. Slang is different from jargon, which is talked about in more detail below.
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation aren't all there is to professional-sounding writing. In fact, I would argue that one of the most integral things to sounding professional is using the right language at the right time.
What is audience-appropriate language?
Using "audience-appropriate language" means that, in your writing, you use phrases, jargon, key terms, and other words that are applicable to the audience you're writing to. You wouldn't use the same words for a presentation to your boss as you would for writing an email to a colleague; you wouldn't use the same words in a biology lab report as you would in a physics lab report; you wouldn't use the same words to critique music as you do to critique visual art. Similarly, the language you use in creative writing is not the same as the language you should use in professional writing.
There are no solid guidelines for this sort of thing. It is very individual to your situation, the reason for and recipient of what you're writing, and the amount of knowledgeability you're trying to convey. (You should always try to convey the utmost amount of professionalism, but your conveyed knowledgeability depends on the situation.) To get a sense of what words and terms you should consider including, try some of the methods below.
Look up examples or templates for the thing you're writing. This is mostly useful for cover letters, resumes, CVs, and similar documents, but can help with applications, interviews, and even emails too. Avoid generic examples and look for ones that are specific to your topic -- if you're writing a cover letter for an accounting job, don't use one for a construction job as an example.
If you're applying for a job, look at the keywords and jargon the company uses in its job listing (or that other companies use in similar listings) and see if you can fit any of those into your document. Be careful not to shoehorn or force words into place -- make sure they still make sense and flow with the rest of your writing.
What is jargon, and when should I use it?
Another element of audience-appropriate language is jargon. Jargon is the catch-all term for "specialized vocabulary," which includes two types of phrases. The first are ones that are in common use but have a different, more specific meaning in certain situations. The second are ones not in common use, that have hyperspecific meanings applicable only to very specific situations or professions (e.g. "comorbidity," "10-4," or "iatrogenic").
Most often, jargon is specific to professions or fields of study. It can be a good thing to use if you're applying for a specific job and want to show your potential employer that you know what you're talking about from the get-go. But using too much jargon, or jargon that's too obscure or hyperspecific, can come across as pretentious and showoff-ish. Try to use jargon words that aren't too obscure, or that see some common use, unless the situation calls for the use of more complicated jargon (such as a research paper or report).
When writing, your top priority is almost always legibility and understanding. You want to make sure that the audience you're writing for can read and understand it. Making sure your sentences aren't overcomplicated, using appropriate language and terms, and having correct grammar and punctuation all contribute heavily to your writing's ability to be understood.