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 an executive summary

For the love of all that is right and good, PLEASE DO NOT WRITE YOUR EXECUTIVE SUMMARY FIRST!

Here’s why.

  1. The executive summary is the only part of a report you can guarantee will get read. So it needs to be the most powerful and well-written part. The end.
  2. The executive summary needs to be written when your thinking is the most clear (and that happens towards the end of the writing process). It makes me want to cry when I hear people being taught to write your executive summary first as a way of getting your thinking clear and planning the rest of the document. Umm, no!
  3. The executive summary should repeat some key points, phrases, and statements from the body of the document. You can copy and paste them – you do not need to rewrite! The repetition is reassuring to a reader. It adds credibility. Don’t be fooled that the executive summary is only for executives or decision makers. It’s for them yes, AND every other reader. I mean, think about it – does anyone ever skip the executive summary because they’re not a decision maker? Duh.

OK, rant over.

Now the how to.

Modern business writing doesn’t follow many of the traditional conventions you might have had drilled into you. Modern business contexts are more agile, and documents need to be, too.

That means documents that are stripped back and lean – there’s no room for fat, waffle, fluff (or anything else you might want to call it – I’m talking about the stuff that we all know no one reads, but we put it in documents because that’s the way it’s always been done).

So if we apply that thinking to the executive summary, and the executive summary is the only part of a report we can guarantee will be read, then we can’t put anything into that summary that’s not strictly necessary.

How to write an executive summary

Step 1

Know what your report needs to achieve, and which readers it needs to work for the most so that can happen.

Step 2

List the MAIN questions those readers will need to have answered for the report to be successful. Make those questions into headings.

Step 3

Find (in your report) the key points (at a high level only) that address those questions. Copy and paste them under each heading.

Step 4

Make sure the first line or paragraph tells your readers:

  • what the report’s about
  • who it’s for
  • THE BOTTOM LINE

Step 5

Go over what you’ve got with a lens of information at a glance, not traditional paragraphs and narrative. Your executive summary MUST have headings, bullets, a high-level table or visual, white space. Do not make your executive summary a solid wall of text or paragraphs with no textual differentiation.

Step 6

Slap that puppy at the front of your report, BEFORE the contents page or any definitions or lists of acronyms etc. Make it the first page after the title page if there is one.

Voila. A professional executive summary.

Just like that.

(You’re welcome.)

How to persuade and get buy-in

How not to argue

If you’re in an energetic discussion with someone, what’s a sure-fire way to get them to dig their heels in?

Flat-out tell them they’re wrong. Point out all the faults in their logic. Deny their point of view.

The more you do that, the greater the barrier between you. You’re building a wall (aye, Donald).

How to argue with a chance of winning

But if you want any chance of getting them to hear you, getting them to consider there’s a different way to look at the issue, if you want to be heard, they need to feel heard first.

To influence, persuade, and get buy-in to your ideas, you have to remove the barriers between you.  You have to create connection, clear some common ground, so that then the foundations of your reasoning can be built together, one block at a time.

But Shelly, how do you know?

I’m a writing trainer. You’d think I spend most of my time training people in the skills of good writing. But really, I spend most of my time winning people over.

I teach plain language. And plain language is the polar opposite of most of the ‘rules’ of good writing you learned at university. It goes against all the things you learned about using higher-level, more complex language to sound more intelligent, against the written voice you’ve always believed is what will give you credibility at work.

The people I train have had those ideas reinforced (and been rewarded for them) for years – often decades.  The only way I can get them onside is to make sure they feel heard, validated, affirmed in their position, and then gently persuaded to consider a different view. And to sit with that different view. To play with it. To experience it. And to decide for themselves.

I’m a professional mind-changer.

The principles are the same when writing

So, to be persuasive in your writing, you need to do those same things.

1. Acknowledge the reader’s position

Like in all good business writing, start with your bottom line up front. Tell them where the destination is before you start the journey. That’s always a thing. And then, address their concerns. In NLP it’s sometimes called objection inoculators. Don’t leave objections simmering away in the background. Address them straight up. Acknowledge them as real and valid.

2. Validate their concerns

There’s a careful balancing act here of acknowledging validity, showing you understand the thinking and can see that it’s a reasonable position, without adding fuel to the fire.

Try using phrases like:

  • It’s a common and understandable position…
  • We’ve previously believed…
  • Understandably, we have fears around…

3. Know their points of leverage

Here’s where intimate insight into your reader’s way of thinking becomes vital.  If you know your reader is swayed by financial benefits, address those – and do it hard. If you know they’re particularly concerned with efficiency, processes, streamlining, show them benefits related to those. If long-term strategy is their thing, focus there. Maybe it’s quality. Maybe it’s ego. Know your reader, and use what will sway them.

4. Emotion always plays a part

Again, it’s a careful balance. Most influencers in the workplace will respond negatively to writing that is overly emotive – we’re so used to being sold to through informercials and hard sales pitches. So don’t do that. But the occasional subtle and well-placed emotive word for impact will work. While we don’t want to overuse emotion, we also don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that there’s no place for emotions in business. That’s simply not true – humans run businesses. Humans are emotional. The end.

5. Everything else is an extra set of steak knives

After all that, hit them with all the bonuses.  All the added extras!

Once you’ve addressed their concerns and leveraged their wants and drivers, show them all the benefits they never even considered.

Make it too good to say no to.  Just too valuable, too beneficial.

Overpower their arguments – not by fighting against, but by winning over.

Ready to go?

Practice this in conversation. Then plan out a well-sculpted argument and write the damn thing.

You’ll never know whether you can win someone over if you don’t try.

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!