Writing is like speaking — everyone thinks they can do it, then does it without thinking, and then wishes they hadn’t. Modern technology means we all work with more words in a year than an ancient scholar would have seen in his entire life, even if he hadn’t died of cholera at age forty (some days that seems like the easier option). We don’t expect every eater in the world to know how to cook; how can we expect every reader to know how to write effectively?
Writing is a full time job. Well-written works can outlive their author, and even terribly-written rubbish can make millions upon millions of dollars if you remember to include Jesus and Tom Cruise instead of research.
While most of us aren’t expecting bestseller status, we have to admit that writing compresses our entire intellect into a few sentences and lets others judge us on the results.
We’ve collected a few simple tips on how to improve your writing.
This Is Not Homework
Business writing is not homework. We know that there’s usually a big boss telling you to write things, and that might have triggered old memories from elementary writing classes, but elementary school is really the wrong mindset for professional communications. You might not think you’re using classroom standards in your job, because you’re (hopefully) allowed to go to the toilet without asking, but thousands of people make the same simple, terrible mistake.
Your work is not measured on quantity.
Anyone who’s ever worked with other people has struggled through paragraphs of text to find out what they were talking about. You don’t have to dress up your point in paragraphs of extra text to make it look impressive. If your boss wants paragraphs of pointless verbiage instead of short, sharp facts, you’re likely working for a gossip magazine and don’t know how you live with yourself. If you can express your point in just a few sentences, do it. If you can’t, you don’t really understand it. Go back over it until you do.
It’s Not Pornography Either
Starring in pornography means revealing yourself and showing off a lot of your most personal things. That is the opposite of professional communications. You don’t shove yourself in someone else’s face when you’re doing business unless that business is in a brothel. If your contribution to a project is going to be late, don’t whine about a your personal problems for a paragraph before saying that. You might think it’s a legitimate excuse, but to the people who are still getting things done (and waiting for you), it’s just another thing you’re doing instead of what they need.
Problems or setbacks are not improved by setting things back even more with long, personal descriptions of your problems. Which, by definition, are yours.
The same is true of positive things. Even when you work with friends, don’t mix business and pleasure. The mail setting out the new sales schedule shouldn’t be combined with a hilarious story about what your kid put in his or her mouth. Feel free to write another personal mail, but professional communications should be kept clean. That way they can forward or save any information you send without having to edit, or even worse, without editing at all.
Business writing is never breathless, gasping or very excited. Again, unless it’s a very specialized type of business frequently conducted on street corners or within seedy hotels. Professional communications should be calm and collected, and that means a lack of ridiculously, flabbergastingly excitable adjectives. Even a single exclamation mark should be rare event. Every additional exclamation mark announces that the writer is 20 points farther below average IQ. As for very:
Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain
(If you think you know more about writing than him, you go ahead and write whatever you want.)
Rewriting Is Real Writing
Better writing comes from re-writing. If more than one person is going to see something, it should be written at least twice. This is actually a lot less work than writing it just once. Thousands of people think they have no writing skills simply because they can’t start anything, erasing the first sentence a dozen times because they think it sucks.
They’re right. And it’s okay! If you’re trying to go from zero to perfect in one sentence, you’re trying to be a perfect writer on your first try. When you know you’re going to write it twice then you are free to pour out everything relevant on the first try. You don’t need to worry about writing and grammar, just get all the ideas out. Then it’s easy to cut, paste and rearrange the writing into something far more clear and organized, because now you have everything you want to say out on the electronic page. The order becomes clear, the bad bits are instantly obvious (and can be erased), and because you’ve been working on it for a bit your brain is fully warmed up. Going through what you’ve written makes the mistakes obvious, suggests what’s missing, and improves your writing a hundredfold.
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