12 writing tips for professionals who hate to write
As a writer by trade, I’m asked — sometimes out of desperation — to help business and other professionals become better writers.
The request is flattering but daunting.
These are educated women and men. Many have advanced degrees and are experts in their fields. They don’t need remedial writing help. They know grammar, punctuation, syntax and sentence structure. Microsoft Word and other writing software highlights misspellings and clunky prose. Smart people can fix passive voice, jargon, wordiness, and other bad writing habits that dog us all (including me in this piece).
Yet many smart, successful professionals still struggle with writing. Why?
Professionals often underestimate the power, career boost and competitive advantage of writing well.
In fact, strong writing can be a core business, management and leadership tool — and success factor.
Investing the work in explaining a proposal, policy or plan in writing can drive better decisions. That’s because writing demands painstaking rigor and clarity in thought, purpose and expression.
Writing also can reveal — and help close — holes in thinking and logic.
Yet many professionals still prefer to assemble a stack of PowerPoint slides with cool visuals and bloviate through those.
This is like illustrating a book before you write it and randomly explaining the pictures leading nowhere. Often there’s no point and no power.
Also, how many times have we walked out of a PowerPoint presentation with everyone in the room believing there’s common understanding and agreement about the goals, strategy and plan? But when it’s all spelled out in writing, say, for a memo to the board or public announcement, and circulated for review, eyebrows fly up and conflict ensues?
A written document circulated for review and comment helps to flesh out — and flush out — what colleagues really think, and makes them commit their thoughts in writing. The document-driven process yields invaluable input, calls out differences, and drives consensus toward better, faster decisions and actions.
The power of writing is my #1 takeaway from 30+ years in strategic, executive, policy, business and crisis communications.
Working with CEOs of Fortune 50 companies, U.S. government leaders, and heads of major nonprofit organizations, often at the white-hot center of headline-making, market-moving situations, I’ve seen first-hand how strong writing makes a critical difference.
Great leaders know this, and demand writing prowess of themselves and their teams.
So … why aren’t more accomplished professionals better writers?
Here’s what I’ve seen and heard from people in my writing seminars:
Many don’t know where to start — they have a jumble of thoughts to express.
Many don’t like to write — it’s grinding, grueling, time-consuming work.
Many don’t feel confident in writing — they’re intimidated by the blank screen, try in vain to write the perfect opening paragraph, and invariably dislike what they see, leaving them dead in the water.
Many have learned the worst of business, legal or “official” writing — they believe sharp, lively, plainspoken prose doesn’t sound “professional”.
Talking is much easier than writing — and bonus! — often there’s no record of what you said. So you can’t be held as accountable.
How can professionals be better writers?
Start with 12 simple tips I’ve learned the hard way by getting slammed by better writers and editors and even people who can’t or won’t write:
1. Goal matters
Think before writing: What am I really trying to accomplish? Sounds obvious, but often professionals start writing with only a vague sense of why. Is it to inform? To explain? To convince? To inspire? To prompt action? All of these?
Knowing the goal — and writing focused on that goal — helps to separate the wheat from the chaff (and lose the chaff).
2. Audience matters
Another question many forget before writing: Who are my readers? What do I want them to know, think, feel or do? What do they want to know? How much do they want to know? At what level of depth or detail?
When writing, imagine you’re the reader who has no patience or attention span and wants to know why spend invaluable time reading your thing with so much else to read.
3. Structure matters
In writing seminars, I ask for a show of hands: How many outline before they write?
Surprisingly few take that first step we learned in grade school.
But like heading on a road trip, the writer first needs to map the route.
Outlining organizes thoughts, creates “buckets” to throw in material you want to cover, and provides a logical flow. Also, since readers often merely scan documents, the outline captured in subheads provides a quick road map and key takeaways.
4. Facts matter
Today’s political divisions often arise from disputes over selected facts, i.e., my data can beat up your data.
In professional writing, well-vetted, tied-down, solid and facts everyone agrees upon remain powerful.
Sometimes the facts are not so favorable. Maybe your chief financial officer has buried a billion-dollar problem with the forecast. Don’t “spin” or dance around bad facts —deal with them straight on and how you’re going to make better facts.
Most of all, know the most important facts, and use the facts even better than the drunken man in the old joke uses lampposts: For support and illumination.
5. Context matters
I’ve always wondered why some accomplished professionals don’t have a complete grasp of their organization’s big picture.
They know their cog but not the context. Even though the big picture typically is available in public filings, company and organization websites, earnings and Congressional reports, industry press and management’s internal updates to employees.
Professionals need to know how they fit into and drive the machine, and how the whole machine works. Owning the context enriches the writing.
6. Tone matters
Professionals face friction every day with colleagues, competitors, stakeholders, customers, regulators, the public, and of course, the media.
It’s tempting when roused to throw shade, a bit of self-indulgent snark. Sometimes intentionally, but too often out of poor choice of words and sense of how your words might be received.
Let the attitude go. As one HR consultant put it, “Don’t let your amygdala hijack your neo-cortex.” Take the high road until it runs out. Use fighting words only strategically, with intent. Needless snark fuels the fight, and makes the fight about the fight rather than the substance of it.
7. Argument matters
Much of professional writing, even if informing or explaining, is about making a convincing case.
Like an attorney writing a brief, set forth a clear and simple premise, and then write to prove and persuade.
Try this simplistic outline: 1) state your case briefly; 2) make three supporting points; 3) explain and illustrate each point with the best facts or examples available; and, 4) conclude with a summary wrap and punch it home with a quip, quote or quick anecdote.
8. Speed matters
In today’s nonstop internet and global whirlwind, writers don’t have the luxury to over-think, over-write, track down every last fact and craft perfect prose the very first time.
Perfectionism can be the enemy of progress. Get a 1.0 version down quickly and edit edit edit edit edit as time allows.
9. Brevity matters
Few readers, unless they’re curling up in a wing chair next to a roaring fire with a book, lap cat, and brandy snifter, will suffer our trenchant insights and lengthy proof of how much we know.
Internet writing — for better or worse — reflects that readers today have short attention spans.
(Yes, this piece already is too long. We’re almost done.)
10. Simplicity matters
Microsoft Office and other readability analyzer software can gauge whether your writing is simple enough for the average reader at the grade-school level.
That’s not an insult — professional writing demands ease in reading. Too much writing by professionals suffers from the writer trying to sound smart, insider-y, or rakishly cool from business school.
My advice: Talk on the page — start writing as you would speak normally to human beings. Then edit edit edit edit.
And of course, lose the jargon. Every industry and subject area has it.
One government client staffer from the Silicon Valley world liked to throw around terms like “data wrangling,” “dogfooding,” “agile methodologies” and “viral loops” that the public audience we were trying to reach would never understand. A CFO client once thumbed a cryptic email outline for a major investor address that cited “the Marimekko” (it’s a kind of financial chart that looks like a Marimekko fabric design).
Jargon is arrogance that insults audience. Unless you’re trying to be funny. Then feel free.
11. Narrative matters
Aside from #7 (argument matters), another effective approach is to structure your document as a story, with a beginning, middle and end that brings the reader back home, enlightened. Like The Odyssey and many if not most of the greatest novels do.
Points should flow from one to the next with seamless transitions that take the reader along. It’s amazing how many professionals grind the gears like in a 1953 Nash Rambler as they’re shifting from one point to the next.
Start by telling readers where you’re taking them, and then take them, giving them mile markers (say, subheads) along the way. Transitions should be like how eight-speed automatic transmissions shift— smooth, even barely noticed. Readers are more likely to go along with you.
12. Ego is the enemy
Confound the critics — give your writing brutally tough love before others can hate it.
My favorite writer on writing, Bird By Bird author Anne Lamott, advises, “Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing yourself, getting some work done, then un-hypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”
Get that first draft down, then get to work editing, editing, editing, editing.
Before you’re done and send it off, here’s a weird trick: Forward your draft to another device — your phone or tablet — and read it there. Something about the change in screen helps you see what you wrote fresh and objectively, as a reader would.
The hard work — the process — of writing well matters as much as the product.
It’s like going to the gym: The more you sweat, struggle and suffer, the easier it gets. Next thing you know, you have new muscle memory.
I hope these writing tips help. Your comments and critique, however harsh, are more than welcomed — you’ll help me and my writing so perhaps I can better help anyone who asks for my help.
Most of all, thanks for reading.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer