How to get better at writing

Practice.

The end.

OK fine, I’ll say more.

But that is one of the biggest things if you want to improve your writing. It’s a muscle that needs to be strengthened. You get better at it the more you do.

I didn’t know it, but I was refining my skills

I’ve always said that one of the reasons I’m a good writer is that when I was 15, I kept a journal. For a good couple of years, I wrote a full page every day, religiously. I wrote whatever I wanted. There was a lot of teenage angst, a lot of hormonal ups and downs, plenty of sulking, and a good share of falling in and out of love. I’m sure now, in my 40s, most of it would seem ridiculous.

But the point isn’t what I wrote.

It’s THAT I wrote.

My brain got good at articulating thoughts and translating them into words and sentences. Connections were built. The pathways between my brain and my fingertips got strengthened.

Write Purposefully

In the last (nearly) decade of running my business, I’ve developed a refined skillset – one specifically around purposeful writing. Writing that sets out to achieve a certain purpose with a certain audience.

When I sit with a client who needs help with a document and we come up with the answers in minutes, they’re astounded. They can’t believe how good I am at it. How easy I made it look.  They think I’m some kind of magician.

I maintain it’s just because of the years of practice.

Refine your process

I’ve refined my practice down to starting with some very specific pieces of information.

Once I know those, it’s easy to get clarity about a document, make some key decisions about how to approach it, and create a quick plan. All of a sudden that document isn’t an elephant you have to eat. It’s a map to follow on the way to arriving at a destination you know have made clear.

As I use that process EVERY DAY, for years now, it’s become very easy. I’ve become very good at it.

It’s not that I’m some document-whisperer. I’m just very well-practiced.

No amount of writing training will wave a magic wand and make writing suddenly easy.

It can help you take some leaps and bounds towards that, raise your confidence, and give you tools to use.

Those things are all incredibly helpful.

And, you have to practice.

You can’t get better at writing without writing. #SorryNotSorry

How to write faster

Time is money and all that. It’s true. I wish I knew how to calculate the value of the lost productivity that can be traced back to bad writing.  It would be HUGE.

So in my trainings that’s one objective lots of people have:

Here’s my advice.

1 – Think first, write second

It’s the thinking that slows us down. We get an idea, start to write it, get stuck on a word, forget what we were going to write next.

So we should REALLY separate the thinking part from the writing part. Think first, write second.

2 – Plan

The thinking part needs to result in an Actual. Written. Plan.

Your world is literally full of distractions. They’re internal and external.

Don’t forget to buy milk. Did I lock the car? Heeeeeey, Shelly, how about that All Blacks game last night? An email notification. A text message. A phone call.

Every time one of those things distracts you mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-chapter, it takes you anywhere from 17 seconds to 17 minutes to get back on track (depending which study you believe).

Writing out a very simple plan means you get back on track faster, every time.

3 – Write the easiest bits first

A plan also means you can pick and choose which bits of an email or document to write first. You know the thing about eating an elephant one bite at a time?

It’s the same with documents. People procrastinate writing a report because they’re thinking about writing the WHOLE THING. ALL AT ONCE. It feels big, daunting, and that puts us off.

The same thing happens when you’re faced with a section of a document that’s hard: I have to write the introduction. I don’t know how to write that. Kill me now.

Imagine if your document has 6 sections, and 4 of them are super easy to write. You know exactly what needs to be said for those 4. You have all the info. You can copy and paste some stuff. If you write those 4 bits first, then you feel like you’re almost done.

You sit back and the bulk of the document is finished.

Suddenly accomplishing this thing (eating this elephant) feels possible.

4 – Less wordsmithing

In my estimate, anywhere from 30 – 100% of the wordsmithing (editing, polishing, sculpting, fine-tuning) we do has a negligible effect on the outcome. If we’re focused on our readers, those tiny changes that can take so much time and effort, make very little difference. We’re usually making those changes for our own benefit.

Language is too subjective for lots of those small things to have much impact. You start to make changes at a level that has so much subtlety the likelihood your reader will infer the same things as you is diminished.

So there you go.  Write faster, write smarter, write purposefully.

Then go have a coffee. You’ve earned it.

How to proofread – quickly and efficiently

Read out loud.

I’m not talking editing here. Your re-writing stage has to be finished. Proofreading is the final step. It’s the polishing – the cleaning up any rough edges.

Reading out loud

Reading out loud is the thing no one wants to do. It’s slower than reading in our heads, so it takes longer. AND THAT’S THE POINT.

To have a strong lens for correctness and quality, we need to slow it down.

Reading out loud sets multiple senses and brain processes into motion simultaneously, and that’s what makes it so efficient for proofreading.

We see the words on the page, and to a point, we know how words are supposed to look.

We send those to our brain to process for our mouths to articulate. Our ears hear the flow of the language – and that’s where most of the magic happens.

You’ll find: 

So next time, before you hit send or hand that document over to a reviewer, print it out, take it to another room away from your desk, and read it out loud.

(This is also true for non-native speakers of English who are immersed in English speaking environments, by the way. You’re used to the natural flow of the language around you. Let your ears tell you what sounds right.)

Sounds too simple?

Try it!

Getting clarity – how do I write more clearly?

In all my trainings, with hundreds of professionals each year, this is the thing people ask for above all else:  How do I write more clearly?

The answer is so simple it’s almost embarrassing:  Write the way you speak.

Yes, really.

Write the way you speak.  In every document.

I don’t care whether the audience is a CEO or board or minister in government or guys on the street or a scientist.  I don’t care whether you’re writing a technical specification or a standard or a policy or an email or a website.  Just write the way you speak. 

Here’s why.

You’ll increase your credibility

Research shows that writing more like the way we speak gives us more credibility.  It makes us sound smarter.  That’s good for our career development, for our brand, for our business outcomes.

So,

  • write using everyday words – use instead of utilise, today instead of on today’s date, we recommend instead of it is recommended
  • write the kind of sentence patterns we use for speech – in a nutshell, that’s the active voice over the passive voice (and that’s a whole other article – check out this one while I write mine)

You’ll appear more confident

Confidence sells.  It reassures.  It stands out.  It gets remembered and responded to.  Studies support that expressing things confidently gets better outcomes.

So,

  • own your statements – say we think, I recommend, you should, not some have observed, it is recommended, should be considered…
  • use fewer words – the more words we use, the weaker the message. Think of an EXIT sign.  It doesn’t say Consider removing yourself from the building through this orifice in the event of an untimely or unexpected occurrence.  It just says EXIT.

You’ll revert to what comes naturally

Imagine how much simpler business communications would be if they were more like conversations?  It’s faster to write that way, it’s faster to read that way, and we can all get on with our to-do lists.  We know this for a fact.  So,

  • trust your instincts about how to express an idea – we’re all actually pretty great at communicating verbally
  • read what you’ve written out loud – does it sound like you’re actually having a conversation?

You’ll get rid of confusion and misinterpretation

When we write the way we speak we’re more direct.  The academic, legal, and traditionally formal corporate voice is a minefield of ambiguity.  It’s learned and affected and therefore not natural.  That means it’s harder for us to get right.  It’s commonly recognised that the active voice is strong from a legal standpoint.

So,

  • start your sentences with a whothe client damaged the car, not the car was damaged
  • break up long sentences – the more ideas and words in a sentence, the more opportunity for misinterpretation

As I always say in my trainings – just test it out.  Just give it a try and see what kind of response you get.  If no one mentions anything about the change, that’s a win!  It means your writing is working.  Even better, people might comment on how easy something was to read, or how quickly you’ve been plowing through the emails.  Again, a definite win.

The only caution I have is about expectations.

If you want to dramatically change the way you’re writing documents that others have to approve, give managers/reviewers/end users a heads up.

Get buy-in.  A disconnect in expectations is guaranteed to bring out the red pen – and resistance to change.

Other than that, go!

Be free!

And write the way you speak.

Sell them what they want, so you can give them what they need

OK, I need to take you on a little bit of a journey to explain what I mean here, so bear with me.

I have a background as an educator. I trained as a high school English teacher. I started teaching at universities at 21 years old.  I worked in indigenous tertiary education for 7 years.

I now train adults for a living.

Trainer. Teacher. Educator. Facilitator.

In the education sector we have strong feelings about all these words.

In the school of education, we frown on the word ‘train’ because there’s a history of seeing teaching as a vocation rather than a profession.

In indigenous education we prefer the word ‘facilitate’ because it rejects the ‘empty vessel’ pedagogy that has such close links with colonisation.

When teaching adults, we are less likely to use the word ‘teach’ for similar reasons – working with adults requires a more co-constructive, facilitative approach than a teacher-student model.

And yet.

I make good money as a corporate trainer because that is what companies are looking for. When adult participants come into a room with me they want me to teach them things. They are looking to me to have the expertise I can pass on to them.

But here’s the curveball: in a lot of ways, what I’m delivering to people when I train, teach, educate, or facilitate, is CONNECTION.

I teach people how to connect with other humans, because that is the foundation for all the other things we want to achieve.

Want to write better documents (Business Writing)? Connect with your readers.

Want to teach people better in the workplace (Train the Trainer)? Connect with your trainee.

Want to work better with other cultures (Cultural Competency)? Build a connection with those people.

You won’t hear me distil it like that in a training room.

So what does this have to do with marketing? And writing?

When we name a product or service, it’s natural to come at it from our own position:

  • What do I call this thing?
  • What is it, from my professional perspective, that I’m providing?
  • What words are acceptable in my industry?
  • What words will my peers see value and credibility in?

But that’s a mistake.

We also name our products and services based on the outcomes we know they’ll provide to people.

That’s also a mistake.

Because, ask any trainer or consultant and they’ll tell you:

What these people need is X, but they think they need Y. 

If I try to sell them X, they’re not interested.

But if I sell them Y, they’ll buy it, and that gets me in the door so that I can give them X.

If I only deliver Y they won’t be anywhere near as satisfied as if I give them X.

In a nutshell?

Ask yourself what your market is looking for.

What do they think they need?

And then label your product or service as that.