One thing you can do to improve your writing

One thing you can do to improve your writing

A few weeks before I started my long leave, I was walking past a coffee shop on my way to work and I had an overwhelming desire to go in and order scrambled eggs and a large flat white and just sit outside in the sunshine watching the world go by.

It seemed like a much better option that going into the office and facing a barrage of emails and work requests, and it was at that precise moment that I realised that I was really a bit over going to work.

Every Monday morning I would sit at my desk and feel slightly overwhelmed at the big “to do” list in front of me, especially since many of the tasks seemed to be the same things that I’d been doing for the last few years, with very little impact.

I started to realise that perhaps I was just going around in circles, preaching the same sermon about the need to simplify projects, systems and services to a mostly deaf audience.

No matter how many times I tried to say that we were making things too complicated, it seemed that there was a strong desire for wordy inaccessible documents and for reports so obscure and protracted that only the most enthusiastic reader would ever make it to the end.

Making things simple and understandable has been my whole life’s work and in reality, it’s been a failure. People like things to be complicated. It looks impressive. It makes you seem smart.

It’s bad for the community, but really, who cares? Apart from the community of course.

Recently, my friend Sue sent me a link to the new strategic plan for our local Council. She had bravely tried to read it (and make sense of it) and was despairing about the poor writing, overuse of trendy meaningless terms and general inaccessibility of the document. It was obvious that although the stated purpose of releasing the draft document was to encourage “community consultation” it was written in a way that clearly prevented this.

We had an interesting conversation about whether these documents are written with the intention of being deliberately obscure, or whether the tendency to write like this is driven by ignorance, or just people thinking that this is what you are supposed to do. A combination of one or all of these I suspect.

My friend highlighted the extensive use of ‘weasel words’ (words that people use when they are trying to avoid telling the truth) and also sent me a link to the awesome bullshit generator which I love for its awfulness.

The tool is designed to generate bullshit for your next meeting, proposal or interview with your boss. You press the button and out comes a stream of unintelligible, meaningless phrases that sound oh so impressive but mean absolutely nothing. What’s really alarming is that I’ve actually seen some of these phrases used quite recently.

I know that writing is hard for many people. The rules of grammar are sometimes confusing and inconsistent, and many people feel daunted by the prospect of writing long documents.

But there’s one thing that you can do to improve your writing straight away.

Don’t try to sound impressive, just try to be clear.

Don’t fuss about your writing style. Don’t try to sound smart. Just say what you want to say.

Often when people write very wordy documents, I ask them to tell me (out loud) what they are trying to say. Unsurprisingly, they are often able to articulate that very clearly. Then I say, just write that down. What you just said was clear and concise, so just say that. It’s easier than you think.

Editing is a gift to your readers

Editing is a gift to your readers

My plan to do more writing during my six months off has been going quite well. Some days I’m quite productive while others are spent procrastinating by doing avoidance activities such as ironing and cleaning out cupboards.

I love the peace and quiet, but sometimes I feel quite restless. It’s not that I particularly want to go anywhere, I just miss the structure that being at work gives your day. I’m also missing the learning aspects of being at work, so I’ve been entertaining myself by doing an online course in non-fiction writing. It’s a free course on Teachable led by an instructor who is really quite arrogant and rude to his colleagues. I couldn’t bear to work with someone like that, but he does seem to know what he’s talking about. He’s had four books on the New York Times bestseller list, so who am I to criticise?

I’m learning quite a lot. I’m about halfway through, and it’s usually at about this point that I get bored and/or find some kind of excuse to avoid doing the hard graft. Most of the content is delivered as pre-recorded webinars but they are often quite drawn out and repetitious which I find frustrating. My editing background makes me want to snip out the parts where they go off topic or just start waffling on about nothing.

Yesterday I discovered that you can play the videos at double speed which makes it a bit easier to get through the content. I find it easy to listen to audio at a fast speed and still understand what they are saying.

Even though I’m very critical of other people who find it hard to get to the point, it’s something that I know I’m also guilty of. Often this is because I don’t know what point I’m trying to make until I’ve got something down on paper.

Many writers claim that they write to make sense of what they are thinking. The very act of putting something down on paper forces you to get to the nitty gritty of what you are trying to say, but sometimes you have to approach it from a few different angles before it becomes clear, even to yourself. I guess that’s where editing comes in. You should never be afraid to edit out extraneous material, no matter how hard it was to get those sentences out of your brain and down on paper.

When I was working, I was often the recipient of very long emails (brain dumps) where people just put all their thoughts down without any thought for the reader. It always reminded me of that old adage “I would have made this shorter if I’d had more time”. I guess they figured that their time was more valuable than mine, or that I might really appreciate knowing all the details of how they arrived at their final position. Usually I didn’t really care that much, I just wanted to know what they wanted me to do. Cut to the chase! Sometimes the backstory is relevant, but you need to be judicious about which details add value and which are just fluff or a description of your thought processes. This can be hard if you’re not used to editing your work.

If at all possible, I recommend not pressing send on your email straight away or running it past another reader to make sure it makes sense. We used to do this all the time at work and it’s really helpful. A little bit of time gives you perspective.

My point is not to get too precious about your words. If you care about your reader (and you should definitely care) then take some time with everything you write to consider who will be reading it and what it is that you are really trying to say.

Being concise is hard work

At my workplace we have a new trend which involves conveying entire concepts and strategies on a single page. This has evolved from the various ‘plan on a page’ and infographic documents that have become commonplace over the past couple of years.

The documents vary in quality. Some look good but are essentially meaningless, and some are ugly but give a fantastic overview of a complex project or proposal. When they are both well-designed and easy to understand, magic happens.

Even though I have a tendency to be super-critical about most of these documents, I am truly excited to see that my colleagues are really knuckling down and have a really hard think about what it is that they are trying to say and how they can best convey their ideas. I saw a fantastic example today which explained (in one page) the contents of two and half folders of information. It was an awesome piece of work and a credit to the author.

It reminded me of the joke about being concise which goes…

I could have made this shorter if I’d had more time.

Being concise forces you to clarify your ideas in way that just doesn’t happen when you have the freedom to write a long document. I’m not against long documents per se, but they can often lead to fluffy writing. Short documents impose discipline. You have to get your ideas in order and provide just the right amount of context for the reader.

This can be really hard work, but it’s worth it.

Cole Nussbaumer has this to say about being concise in her latest post.

There might be a lot you want to say about a given topic, but if you can’t condense it crisply and clearly in a way that can be understood and remembered by your audience, you’ve not positioned yourself for success.

I think this is good advice. Check out the complete post.

How to write like a journalist

Most of us have a tendency to warm to our theme as we write. We usually start off with a few introductory sentences (like this) in which we explain why it is that we are writing about this particular topic, and what you might gain from reading what we have written.

A typical workplace report has an introduction that lets you know who the report is for and what it will cover. It often has an executive summary so that the busy executive doesn’t have to read through the whole document. (I often wonder why I should bother writing the rest of the report. I could be writing any old rubbish and be fairly confident that only the most persistent readers will make it to the end).

This is not necessarily the best way to write. Next time you have to write a report or a presentation, I suggest you try using the pyramid writing style.

Pyramid writing involves putting your essential message first and is the opposite of traditional writing. Most people are busy and will decide in the first few sentences whether or not they can be bothered to keep reading what you have written. This paragraph would be first if I were using the pyramid writing style.

The best part is that you don’t need to leave any information out; you just put it in a different order:

  1. Essential message first
  2. Supporting information
  3. History (or background) if needed.

This will keep all your readers happy because they can read the beginning to get the message, or the whole thing to get all the details.  It will also force you to know what your main point is before you start writing. This is of course how journalists write all the time. You might think it encourages laziness, but once you have engaged your readers with your key message, they are more likely to be interested in the supporting information.

Why not try this next time you are asked to write a report, an email or a presentation?

How to write like a journalist

Three tips for clear writing

I don’t really like the term plain English. It reminds me of a plain girl or a plain biscuit, a bit dull and unimaginative and slightly boring. Clear writing on the other hand, can be descriptive, even whimsical but it must be understandable (and therefore clear).

The need to write clearly is more than just a hobbyhorse of mine. I think that we have a responsibility to write as clearly as we can. As Tim Phillips says in his book, Talk Normal.

‘If you’re in government, isn’t it your responsibility to make your language accessible to all the people who need to understand you?’

http://talknormal.co.uk/the-book/

Yes, yes and yes!

It just so happens that I do work for a government organisation and I agree 100% with this sentiment, however it can be hard to write clearly, especially about complex or serious topics.

It’s easy enough to write something simple and engaging about a new product or service – all you really need to do is write about what it can do to make your life better. Explaining the intricacies of a piece of legislation or writing a paper about a complex policy issue is much more difficult. This is where all the big words come into their own don’t they?

My friend Megan says that there are expensive words ($5000) and cheap words ($500) and that you should use the $500 words as much as possible. These are words that are short and to the point. These are not weasel words*. You should only use a $5000 word when no other word accurately conveys the point you are making.

But, I hear you cry… this is easy to say and hard to do. Well, yes and no. Here are a few pointers for you to think about when you are writing.

1. BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR MESSAGE

One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to be clear in your own mind about what you are trying to say. By this I mean that you should know exactly what the point is that you are trying to make and not be afraid to express it as simply and clearly as possible. I read a lot of documents where people just ramble on. It’s pretty obvious that they are trying to work out what their point as they write.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put your thoughts on paper in order to find out what you really think; it just means that all those words don’t necessarily need to end up in the final version.

2. VARY YOUR SENTENCE LENGTH

Secondly, you should try to vary your sentence length. It makes your writing easier to read if you use both long and short sentences. A lot of writing is unclear because the sentences run on and on forever. Keep some of them short. Yes, really short.

You should try to keep to one idea per sentence. Long dense sentences always lead to fuzzy writing.

3. THINK ABOUT YOUR READER

Thirdly, always think about your audience. Do they know what that acronym stands for? It can be terribly confusing for people when you use terms they aren’t familiar with. Don’t try to impress people with your intelligence by using language they don’t understand. Of course if you are writing for an audience of technical experts, feel free to talk the talk. They won’t mind. Just be very careful that you don’t alienate your readers by using jargon.

Are there any writing problems that you face that you would like to discuss? For example, do you need to give other people feedback on their writing and don’t know how to go about this?

I’d love to hear from you.

An image to illustrate weasel words on Wikiped...

* ‘Weasel words’ is the title of a book by Don Watson and refers to words and phrases that are over used in the corporate world and essentially meaningless (for example: innovative approach, optimisation, going forward). See http://www.weaselwords.com.au