This week, I must admit, I was in a bit of a writer’s block. They say the first rule of writing is to write what you know. And then the thought came, why not share some things that I’ve learned about the art of writing?
Your craft is never complete
I’ve been writing professionally for over a decade – in all sorts of forms. Short articles, long reports, corporate publications, 40-slide PowerPoint presentations, academic journals, newspaper articles, blogs and you name it. And one thing I’ve learned is that you are never a perfect writer. There is always something to do to hone your craft. So take any criticism of your writing style with a stiff upper lip, and learn from it and move on.
Adapt your style to your organization
We learn this lesson in many ways in high school and college when we have a difficult professor. In fact, I think the key to surviving college is to figure out the style a professor prefers in his/her writings (and also, the theories the approve or disapprove of) and adapt your writing to suit theirs. This is also true in jobs. Every place I have worked at: CEB, Deloitte, the Partnership for Public Service, and even GovLoop, all have their different styles. They even have their own type of vocabulary, jargon and acronyms (oh my gosh the acronyms in federal government are INSANE!!). Learning this style – and its nuances – can take years to master. Do not mistake not understanding an organization’s stylistic preferences for not being a good writer – they are not one in the same. Some people are fantastic investigative reporters, others are masterful novelists, some write amazing academic tomes. Very few people can do it all. Learn what your preferred style is and find organizations that encourage that way of writing.
Give yourself time
Time to write, read, rewrite, edit, rest and rewrite again. If you know you have a project coming up and a deadline do not wait until the last minute to being writing (a lesson I learned in college when we had huge reports as our final ‘exams’). Even if you have a boss that wants you to hold off putting anything together until all the facts and figures are gathered, go ahead and start drafting on the side. Capture your thoughts on a long-term project on a weekly basis. That way, if you have less time than expected to create your final product, you will find that much of it is already written – even if you have to rewrite parts of your piece or even reorganize it completely. It will save you time and worry later on.
Keep it simple
I must admit – this tip often gives me the heebie-jeebies. And I’ll tell you why. I know a while ago I heard that the average American reading level was at 8th grade (in some places you will see it at a 10th grade level). And this annoys me – why did I go through grades 9-12 and college and a master’s program if I could have stopped learning about my art at the ripe age of 13? And please do not tell me that it is more difficult to write simply. It isn’t – it’s just annoying. I think that much of modern social media has done a lot to dampen our collective intelligence – and I like to think more highly of my American brethren and what they are capable of understanding. Yet, I am singing a song of a dying breed.
In today’s day and age, very few people want to pick up a piece of paper and read something that is full of jargon and SAT-style words that only a select few can understand. But at the same time, if by explaining one word you lengthen your paper into two to three sentences – you can be missing the point of simplifying for the wrong reason. If a sentence can be shortened and clarified by removing a longer word – then do it. But if by doing so, you remove the nuance or meaning, think twice. The trick is finding the right balance, which is an ongoing exercise.
Know your audience
Easier said than done. When I worked at the Partnership, one of the great challenges in our writing was making it approachable to your everyday citizen, explaining why certain facets of government management are important to an American, while still making our reports relevant to those in charge of our government, including Congress, agency leaders, and subject matter experts. At the same time, we had our own constituents within the Partnership – our Board of Directors, our CEO, our research sponsors, and on top of that we had to do our darndest to ensure that our writing was as nonpartisan as possible. A nearly impossible task in this day and age. Having such a varied audience was a real challenge – and one that I did not master. What I did figure out is that by focusing on who are your main audiences (think two to three stakeholders) you can weed out the voices that, while are important, can often detract from the story you are trying to tell.
Writing is about telling a story
Think about it – why do we like movies? Or Ted presentations? Well, aside from diversion and entertainment, it is because they tell us a story. Like any form of art, every piece you write should tell a story. Even if it is a 10 page presentation or a boring work report. I had a teacher at Deloitte once say that the titles of your slides should be read together like a story – and that it helps to draw the listener in. The same can be said of any writing – no matter how short or long. A compelling story has essential elements: a protagonist, an antagonist, a climax and an ending – perhaps a moral or two thrown in for good measure. Now, in business, or in government, maybe you won’t have a protagonist/antagonist per se. But you will have a point you are trying to make (protagonist), a problem you are trying to solve (antagonist), how you go about doing this (plot), and what will happen if you do not (climax). These are all essential elements to ensure you include in anything you write. Even a simple email.
Ensure every part of your story ties itself together
Within a piece of work every paragraph, every sentence, and every word ought to have very specific and chosen meaning. When people edit my work – I don’t get annoyed because they are making changes. Rather, that I have often given intense thought to the word choices I have made to convey a very specific point. Now sometimes, good editors can help to make those points more clear, but don’t let them change the meaning you are trying to convey.
In the same vein, if you are writing a paragraph in a story or report and cannot explicitly state (in writing – not in assumptions you think the reader will pick up on) why that point is relevant to the rest of the piece then take it out. The first time I heard this advice was my first semester of my freshman year in an honors PoliSci course. The TA gave us back our first term papers, on which I saw red ink, everywhere, including a giant D- scribbled on the top. The entire last page was crossed out in red ink and had one word written on it, “FLUFF!” Needless to say, I learned and owe much of my skill in writing to the time this excellent teacher devoted to helping me turn fluff into substance. As writers we can get so protective of our work that we are loathe to change anything. But ensuring that each word and paragraph has meaning and supports the goal of your piece is essential. If it doesn’t work to make the point clear then take it out.
A good grammarian does not a writer make
I know a lot of people who are grammar fiends. I am not one of them. I am sure many of you have read my posts and shuddered at some of the grammatical mistakes I made. I think that many grammarians are excellent writers, it is not always true. Instead, I have found such people to be invaluable as editors. Their attention to detail and their understanding of the power of a placement of word, punctuation and the like are what make a piece of work really shine. So if grammar isn’t your thing, find someone who loves it who can check your work. Also, for what it’s worth – let the Oxford comma reign forever!
Find writers you love and emulate them
Sure we all may have favorite novelists. Be it Jane Austen, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or Shakespeare. And these are wonderful authors with their own merits – but take a look at some modern day writers. Especially those you may not know, or who may not be native English writers. Some people I’ve been pleased to meet, know and call friends are writers. And their words, and style, never cease to amaze me and give me thoughts about how to improve my own craft. Check out the work of Yochi Dreazen – who brilliantly wrote about the military’s view of mental health in his book The Invisible Front. Or Anna Clark, who this year is on a Knight-Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan while she researches the underlying causes of the Flint water crisis and its impact on communities. Who are some of your favorite writers? Ask your friends and expand your mind.
Like everything – practice makes perfect
I’ve received feedback in jobs over the years that my writing needs to be clearer, more business-like, less-business-like, more complex, not so verbose, too simple!! It gets crazy and can bring you down. But every writer has their detractors. If you love it – keep at it. Find time to write every day – even if some of it is in a journal. Writing is a worthy pursuit – and something that is getting more difficult to do well (see a piece I wrote a few years ago on the importance of writing as a course of study).
So what about you? What are things that you keep in mind as you are writing? Anything that is helpful? Do share!