Every Japanese learner at some point need to improve their writing skills, I had this experience being able to fluently speak, but when it comes to writing things get a little bit difficult.
The hard part isn’t about writing itself nor grammar knowledge or vocabulary, actually it’s all about writing conventions and style.
I see fellow Japanese learners make mistakes not in using the language, but for instance, their choice of words in certain situations, or using the wrong collocation, or even using correct grammar.
To overcome this you need a high level of mastery, which takes time and a lot of experience. So I want to share some of my limited experience in working in a Japanese company and reading and writing tens of emails on a daily basis.
I’m writing this article with the presumption that you are at least at an intermediate level. Now that we got that out the way, let’s learn how to write. I am writing this post as an introduction to writing, according to my experience and resources I found beneficial (books and articles on the internet), as I plan to write more in this topic in the coming posts.
At first when I was new to all of this, I didn’t have a good resource or reference, so I had to learn through trial and error, I had to do some quick research before almost every time I needed to send an Email for each situation, you can imagine how daunting that is. But after a while, I learned the basic rules you need to know to write a good email. Well, actually it’s not rules, but more like attitude. In other words, Japanese people expect a certain level of adhering to their cultural standards when receiving emails. So what you may think appropriate (according to your culture) might not stand true for Japanese standards. Without further ado, let’s look at some of the basic points to pay attention to when writing.
1- Think about why you’re writing (Purpose)：
When you write do you think about why you write? or what is the purpose of your writing? To be honest, At first thinking about what I was going to write was hard enough I didn’t have the luxury to think about other stuff. However, defining the purpose of writing before you write is a very important factor in getting better results with your writing.
For instance, when you go on a business trip to do a survey or assess a situation, and it’s time to write a report, generally you write in this fashion 1. Purpose of mission 2. Place 3. Duration 4. Mission content and lastly 5. Your impression. For example you write in your report (I felt that the demand on product x is increasing.) but if you think deep enough you will start to notice that it might not be enough just stating facts, because the company is more interested in what you think the company should do and what policies to follow. Stating the purpose of writing will help you decide what to write. Not only in this case, but also when you are just casually writing it’s better to think about
- What reaction do you expect from the person who reads your writing?
- What action do you want the reader to take?
- What impression do you want to leave?
Start thinking about these questions when you write, and you should come up with different conclusions.
2- Write in the 5W2H way.
Once you decide the purpose of writing, what you need to do next is to think about the content. And to make sure you don’t miss any important information I use the 5W2H method in writing.
Who (someone, the doer or the subject)
When (Days, hours or a period)
Where (a place or a destination)
What (the matter in discussion, the message you want to deliver)
Why (the reason or cause)
How (the circumstances)
How much (price or number)
You don’t have to use them all, sometimes you will just use some of them, some other times you will use all of them, generally they act as guidelines to ensure you don’t miss any important information that you need to convey. For instance, the following case (a Hanami party)
WHO (Our company)
WHEN (1st April, from 6 pm)
WHERE (Maizuru Park at XXX)
WHAT (Hanami Party)
HOW (Our company will hold the event)
HOW MUCH (Participation fee is 500￥)
This case doesn’t require WHY, and when you reform this to sentences, you get something like this:
So by using the 5W2H method you lower your chances of forgetting to mention necessary information.
3- Write in bullets first.
The 5W2H method is good to put the necessary information together, however, as you may have noticed it doesn’t help much in forming sentences, you need more than that to write well. The sentences like 「皆さまお誘い合わせのうえ、ふるってご参加ください」
Is a very important element, it is indispensable when writing outlines of such events.
So I suggest you start by writing in bullets, first write all what comes up to your mind as you think of it, because you will rearrange everything later. It’s kind of similar to brainstorming. It’s easy to have a lot of ideas and decide what and what not to write. Here is an example:
As the organizer of the event you list what you want to say, or your selling points, just go on listing what comes up on your mind, while you are writing you will keep coming up with more ideas, just don’t stop the flow by thinking about grammar and such.
4- Put yourself in the reader place and think about what they want to know.
Okay, so you brainstormed a lot of ideas, and you have a lot to say, so the next thing you should be doing is to see things from the reader’s perspective, think as if you are the reader, see what will you need to know about this particular subject. If we take the example of the Hanami party:
- How far is the venue from the nearest station?
- Is there a map?
- What will happen in case of a rainy weather?
- When is the scheduled end time of the event?
- Will there be an after-party?
- What kind of drinks will be available?
- How many participants are going to be there?
- Is the event for company employees only?
- How, when and to whom should participants pay?
- How to apply? And when is the dead line?
- What is the emergency contact number?
To people who have never attended before they would think about these questions, and so you should think of some way to answer those kind of questions. Maybe write a corner for FAQ and clarify these details in the form of Question & Answer. If you think from one perspective it’s easy to forget such details. Thus, it’s important to think well from all perspectives, and always think about the reader.
5- Carefully select what to write.
After deciding what to write using the 5W2H method and brainstorming your ideas, and thinking about your readers and what they need to know, the next step is to select what to use in your writing. You know you can’t just write everything without thinking, so you should organize the random thoughts into the following 3 categories:
- What you absolutely need to write
- What you prefer to write
- What you don’t need to write
Based on 2 parameters:
- Does this information serve the purpose I am writing for?
- Is this information necessary for the target reader?
In other words, decide (why you want to write this information) and ( for whom you are writing) in most cases you will have to decide to omit some of either things you want to say or things the reader wants to know, in that case unless you’re writing a diary you should prioritize the things your readers want to know.
6- Think about the entire structure.
As you know it’s important to have blueprints before you start any construction, writing also needs to have a blueprint. A structure on which you can build up your content. And here is a simple structure:
- Introduction (Lead-in):
you don’t need to write this if you have a fixed format in your company, otherwise, you need to give some background information, and lead-ins to make it easier for the reader to understand and get involved with your content, for instance in the head of emails you should use some cushioning sentences, especially season-related greetings, or news you heard about recently and other things related to you. Although there are some cases like when you know that your readers want you to give them the conclusion right away, in that case it’s better to do as they expect.
- The subject:
You can write about your subject in several manners such as
General remark followed by detailed discussion
Outline followed by details
Conclusion followed by evidence
A result followed by the cause
Opinion followed by the reason.
Summarize everything in a way that shows why you are writing in the first place, adhering to your purpose of writing. Also add a couple of sentences about what kind of action you want your readers to take. I think that chances to achieve your goal from writing increases according to those last few sentences you sum it all up in.
- Post script:
This is actually quite rare and not so many business men use it in their emails, however to your surprise, people pay a great deal of attention to post scripts. So make sure to use it to your advantage.
7- A simple order in writing:
The same content can be understood in different ways according to the order of writing. So I would like to introduce some of the simple writing orders.
As for points 2 through 6 you can elaborate on the latter part (各論、詳細、根拠、原因、理由)
8- Add a complement according to your purpose
I think most people have an experience of being told “you should’ve just told me that” “you could’ve said that sooner”, that happens when you can’t explain something well. When writing it’s the same, maybe even more difficult as the interactivity is taken out of the equation. You can’t see your reader’s reactions or expressions. That’s why you need to make sure to write in a way that delivers your message. So when you summarize make sure to add a complementary comment that contributes to achieving the purpose of writing. I remember once somebody called my boss and I left her a memo saying ”ｘ時ｘ分、○○さんから電話がありました” but now as I think about it, she wouldn’t know what to do after reading my memo. Does he want her to call back? Will he call back?
My memo clearly didn’t help achieve the purpose of writing it. I should have added what my boss should do next to make my message complete.
Here is some phrases you might use in your emails as complements.
9- Write from where you can write.
The hardest part about anything is the first step, most of the times when you try to start something you feel like this first step is going to take forever, and suddenly you don’t know where to start. In these moments it’s important to start from anywhere. Start from wherever you can start, instead of spending an hour thinking about how you are going to write your first line, skip it and think about what you can write now. We are lucky to be born in an age where you can easily re arrange paragraphs on your computer. Thank god I wasn’t born in the 70s I would have used a ton of paper by now.
10- Read what you write:
When you finish writing always make sure to read aloud what you wrote, this gives you a chance to see things from another perspective and get a general view of what you wrote.
If you’re writing an email read it once before you press the send button.
You need to make sure of everything on the following check-list:
- Is there any Parts difficult to understand?
- Is the flow of the sentence running smooth?
- Is there any single sentence longer than 60 letters?
- Is there any difficult to read Kanji?
- Am I using Katakana words that are difficult to understand?
- Am I using specialized words or words limited to the industry?
- Is there any mistakes in Kanji conversion?
- Is there any words written with the wrong kanji?
- Is there any weird particle usages?
- Is there any ambiguous expressions?
- Is my text well-spaced out and easy to read?
At the end I hope you find those tips useful, and start using it. I plan to write in more details about writing especially writing emails in an ongoing series of articles. you can check the next article about another 10 basic writing tips here.
So stay tuned, make sure to share your thoughts with me and leave a comment.