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 an essay

Seriously? Do you really want to know that? Or do you really mean How to make writing an essay EASY?  Or make it happen by MAGIC? Cos I’m not your Fairy God Mother.

If you found this blog post by googling How to write an essay,  I feel ya. It’s a scary thing.

But I got you, boo.

There’s no one way to write an essay

Anyone who says there is, is lying or selling something.

Major factors:

  1. What your tutor/professor/lecturer/teacher wants
  2. What your tutor/professor/lecturer/teacher wants

So if you don’t know that, this is gonna be a bit of an exercise in faith.  Ultimately, the person marking your essay has their own expectations. You need to find out what those are.

If this thing is due tomorrow, make sure you’ve read all the resources that have been provided to you, on paper, online, by email, whatever. If there is ANYWHERE your marker might have made their expectations of you clear, you need to find it, NOW.

If you’ve got time, ask your class mates or the tutor themselves.

Good essays take time, work, and planning

If your essay is due tomorrow, you’re in the shit (are you wearing your brown pants?).

I’ll give you the best advice I can but you gotta know, it’s gonna take some time.

Here’s what you need to do:

Must-Do #1 – Break it down

You need to break down the essay or assignment question.

WHAT ARE THEY ACTUALLY ASKING YOU TO DO?

Use a highlighter. Read it out loud. Draw a diagram. Talk it through with someone.

Make sure you know:

  • How long does it need to be?
  • What’s the general topic?
  • What’s the bottom line – at the highest level, what are they asking you to do? Summarise? Paint a picture? Argue? Critique? Reflect?
  • What boxes are they specifically asking you to tick? (Like, provide 3 case studies. Or use evidence to support your argument. Or compare 2 models.)

Must-Do #2 – Create a plan (or an outline)

From that exercise, you now need to make a plan.

A plan is just a list of chunks of your essay, in order, with a word count attached. To make the elephant edible.

An essay is like an elephant because it seems huge if you look at it all at once. But if you slice it up into bite-sized chunks, before you know it, you’re burping and patting your stomach and apologising to an elephant’s mummy.

Ultimately, you need an intro, body, and conclusion.

Intro – here’s what I’m going to tell you

Body – make chunks here from your exercise of breaking down the assignment question

Conclusion – here’s what I’ve told you – see how clear it is now?

Your plan might look something like this:

  1. Intro to the theory of unicorn training (500 words)
  2. Chunk A – Theorist A – Longbottom (800 words)
  3. Chunk B – Theorist B – Potter (800 words)
  4. Chunk C – Comparing and contrasting the theories of Longbottom and Potter (1000 words)
  5. Conclusion – Longbottom’s theory is most appropriate for contemporary times (300 words)

Within each of those sections you can now bullet some details, and assign word counts to those, too, if you like.

It is that simple.

It’s a plan.

And now you can write the bits you feel most confident in first. You don’t have to write an essay in order.

Must-Do #3 – Formulas help

We’ve already looked at the formula for a basic essay:

  1. Intro – here’s what I’m going to tell you
  2. Body – here’s me telling you
  3. Conclusion – here’s what I’ve told you

It’s a super-simple way to start planning an essay.

If you plan in enough detail, you can plan on writing about 100 words for each paragraph, and follow the formula for an academic paragraph.

That means if you have to write 1000 words, you should plan 10 paragraphs.

IT’S SO MUCH MORE MANAGEABLE THAN SITTING DOWN TO WRITE 1000 WORDS!

Here’s your formula for an academic paragraph:

SEX (Statement, Example, eXplanation)

Statement – Tell me what you’re thinking about

Example – Show me your evidence

eXplanation – Explain to me why that’s valid with your examples.

Here’s a resource.

And here’s an example.

And here’s a resource with an example.

(You’re welcome.)

And that, my friends, is the best advice I can give you.

If your essay is due in 5 hours, you better freaking move!

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.

Dear document reviewers

Dear document reviewers,

It’s not about you.

It’s about whether the document is fit for purpose (and fit for its readers).

In my estimation, about 70% of all feedback from reviewers of documents in the workplace is not based on correctness or making a document fit for purpose. It’s editing or rewriting or suggestions for change based on I’d say it differently.

Do you have any idea how unhelpful that is?

  1. It’s demotivating for writers because they can never be mind-readers – they can’t actually emulate your voice.
  2. It’s an incredible waste of time. The writers spend time writing, the reviewers spend time reviewing, the writers spend time changing.

And why?

All because the reviewer has a preferred way of expressing an idea.

Not because it’s correcting an error. Not because it improves the document. Not because it’s better for readers.

One of my dreams for the universe is that all people tasked with reviewing documents in the workplace would be trained in the art and skill of doing so.

Even if the main thing they learned was the ability to use one filter question as they reviewed, the world would be a happier place.

The question?

Does this NEED to be improved,

or do I just want to change it to the way I would write it?

I’m not suggesting that we’re egomaniacs.  One part of human nature means that when someone asks for our eyes over a document, we have to make some suggestions to show we put some effort in, or that we have something of value to contribute. There’s another part of human nature that means we’re predisposed to think there’s one right way, and also predisposed to think that our way is right.

I actually believe it takes a high level of EQ and a decent amount of self-discipline to apply this filter while reviewing a document.

And I am ever the optimist.

Dear document reviewers,

Why don’t you save us all some time?

Back the truck up. And let your writers have their own voice.

How to write a report

#SorryNotSorry but there’s no such thing as how to write a report.

A  REPORT.

Like there is one kind of report and there’s one right way to write one.

Meeehhh! Wrong. But thanks for playing.

There are endless kinds of reports

  • status reports
  • research reports
  • analysis reports
  • financial reports (hundreds of kinds)
  • investigation reports
  • incident reports
  • audit reports

See what I mean? You’re not asking the right question.

How to write a report isn’t the right question.

You need to be asking how to write THIS report.

Every single report needs to be written in a way that’s fit for its own purpose. So there’s a set of questions to ask so you can build a report that will achieve what it needs to.

  1. How’s this report going to be used?
  2. Who’s going to use it?
  3. Therefore, what sections does the report need?
  4. And lastly, what level of detail do those people need in each of those sections, so they can use the report for their purposes?

Now you’re on the right track

If you can answer those questions, you have a plan. Once you have a plan, you can write the pieces that are easiest first, and work your way from there. Lots of reports should have an executive summary (pretty much any report that’s 2 pages or longer needs one), and you can write that last.

Reports.

They can be big beasties, but they are certainly manageable. And there’s definitely NOT one right way to write a report. Please stop asking!