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 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.

What place does empathy have in business writing?

What place does empathy have in business writing?

All the places. All. Of. Them.

If your writing isn’t empathetic to your readers’ needs, you’ve failed. End of story.

Who are you writing for? YOU?

All those bad, waffly, long-winded, not-fit-for purpose documents you see at work? Those are the result of writers writing to satisfy their own needs.

Don’t believe me?  How about these needs writers have:

  • the need to look good in their role
  • the need to come across like they know what they’re doing
  • the need to “do it right”
  • the need to show evidence of enough work
  • the need to sound knowledgeable
  • the need to sound “professional”
  • the need to not sound stupid

See what I mean?

Those are very real drivers, and I believe they are the root cause of most bad business writing.

But. If you switch your focus to your readers’ needs and write for them, not for you, magic happens.

What happens when you think about your readers

I’m talking about the kind of magic that happens when you:

  • Give your readers the bottom line up front, instead of making them look for it.
  • Omit those sections that no one ever reads, but that are there because they’ve always been done like that (or just push them further back, like to the appendices, if you need them there to cover butts).
  • Answer your readers’ questions before you tell them all the stuff you want them to know.
  • Acknowledge the fact that business readers skim-read, and then write to support that behaviour (headings, bullets, tables, white space)

We’ve been lying to ourselves

For such a long time we’ve tried to believe work and emotions are separate. But we do so much work on “soft skills” and emotional intelligence these days. We know those are vital!

We spend millions of dollars building empathetic leaders.

Can we PLEASE bring some of that knowing to our writing at work?