How Not to Sound Stupid When You Write
52 writing techniques to kick-start your writing, improve your communication skills, and deliver the results you want!
Why You Need This Book
For those of you familiar with my coaching style, this book’s title may have you thinking I’ve been taken over by an evil twin. Not so. I still offer the same encouragement and inspiration to help people write with ease and build their business writing skills.
But I felt an urgent need to get people’s attention. There’s no nice way of saying this: Our business writing today stinks, which means our results aren’t what they should be. Even our ability to innovate has suffered.
Well, someone needed to say it. Someone who knows. I’ve been editing lousy writing for years, and it’s getting worse. I don’t care how much technology we throw at the problem, our fingers (and brains) still need to know how to type good stuff into those contraptions.
How Not to Sound Stupid When You Write continues what I started with Words at Work. In that book, I share personal stories about building confidence and learning how to write effectively. Now in this book, I go more deeply into the writing process. I take you step-by-step through the planning and organizing steps and on through the beginning, middle, and end of everything you want to write. I then show you the most important steps: editing and proofing.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed the cost of poor writing in the workplace. It drives some organizations to collectively spend millions of dollars annually on grammar-review classes. But just sending folks to a quick class in the nuts and bolts of writing doesn’t solve the problem. Consider Sam, a dogcatcher who thinks nothing of wrestling with Rottweilers but cowers like a cornered Chihuahua when writing about them. Sam’s employer sent him to my writing course b
because his reports couldn’t stand up in court.
Sam’s problem, like so many others, wasn’t really missing commas and misplaced modifiers. The real culprit is a lack of confidence, or put another way, fear of writing and fear of failure.
As Sam talks about his business writing, his voice quivers and a tear snakes down his wide, weary face. His boss loves to use her red pen, he tells me, but won’t explain what’s wrong. After several of these experiences, Sam is frozen, barely able to write.
Like many clients, Sam literally begs me to never share our work together with his boss (something I’d never do anyway). Other clients whisper during our telephone sessions, afraid and ashamed that they will be found out. For what? Being smart and capable and willing to personally pay to become even better? Some clients even hang up in the middle of sessions, apparently caught in the act of self-improvement!
I can’t do much about the bully bosses, but I can listen and share support and information. Like the fact that most of us never learned the writing process. We learn grammar and punctuation, but not what it takes to write something people want to read.
Early on, I naively tried to teach business writers how to use writing techniques that are scientifically proven to yield better results than “just the facts ma’am.” “But,” they cry, “my boss wants me to write ‘Just the facts, ma’am!’”
Others lament, “Why bother? The suits will just take all the creative stuff out.” (That one really made me sad.) And the most common complaint: “I don’t have room to make it interesting—I’m allowed only 300 words.”
These “suits” are kidding themselves if they believe their staff can get results from dry, Spartan information. Some of my students dispelled that notion on my first day of teaching, more than a decade ago: “If we don’t like the looks of something or it seems too dense, we just delete it,” they shared, laughing among themselves. “After all, something more interesting is just a mouse click away.” And those “suits” are kidding themselves if they believe this constant dampening of creativity will yield the kind of fresh thinking their businesses—and our county—need.
Creativity isn’t just for wunderkinds and artists. It’s like oxygen, vital to our daily lives. It’s what leads to written reports that stand up in court and proposals that engage readers (so we get those new accounts or earn a promotion). Creativity is about coming up with better ways to lead, manufacture, or market. It’s about developing environments in which people feel confident to explore, question, and grow.
So this book isn’t so much about grammar or punctuation (though I do review some of the more common goofs and gaffes). It’s more about the writing process, something most of us never learned in school. Once I share it with you, you won’t believe how much more relaxed you’ll feel about writing. No more beating yourself up for not getting it right the first time. No more agonizing over how to start.
And you’ll get an amazing bonus. When you learn the writing process, you’ll not only improve your writing but increase your creativity. Again, not inventing-the- next-iPad kind of creativity (though that can happen), but the kind that helps you in all your daily tasks—at work and after work. The kind of creativity that inspires you to come up with better ways to do this, and faster ways of doing that. Life’s a lot more fun that way.
Let’s get started!
#1:Overcome Your Fear of Writing
We all have them—fears that we’ll sound stupid when we write something at work. And to make matters worse, these fears stop us cold. They’re the culprit behind procrastination, writer’s block, and eleventh-hour writing. Fear makes us stare at an empty computer screen or draw a blank about what to say in a letter, report, blog, or proposal.
I know this all too well. Early on, I had plenty of fears of writing. It took a while, but I eventually tackled all those saboteurs hanging out in my head. Do you have them too? Well, please don’t listen to them!
Start by saying no to them. Self-talk is important, so turn it around and tell yourself that you can write well. Next, figure out once and for all what’s behind your writing fears. Ask yourself if they stem from one of these:
1. Perfectionism. Nothing you write is ever good enough. You beat yourself up because you don’t write as well (yet!) as someone you admire. There’s a big difference between excellence and perfectionism. Think about it—excellence is the natural striving for the best you can deliver, perfectionism is an obsessive quest that can lead only to overwork and disappointing results.
2. Projections. These are old stories from our past that are reenacted by new people. They often reflect a fear of criticism. Many of us got a heavy dose of censure early on, and those messages are still in our heads scolding us—only now we are projecting them on to a new cast of characters. Just know that we all have had critics—and we can all say goodbye to them. We are in control of our minds if we consciously choose to be.
3. Not good enough. Even worse than perfectionism. At least perfectionists think they could write something good—if they only worked harder. But not good enough implies we’ll never be able to. This also shows up as fear of not being creative—and that’s something we’ll debunk throughout this book. For now, take my word for it—everyone is creative. It’s more a matter of accessing your creativity.
4. Fear of failure. A symptom of any/all of the above. When you address 1, 2, and 3 above, you’ll loosen the grip of this fear.
5. Fear of success. A puzzling yet common fear that’s beyond my scope of expertise. But I can share that I know lots of people (myself included) who have lessened its power just by facing its existence head on.
OK, now let’s do something about these fears. Try these methods for overcoming your fear of writing:
1. Believe in yourself. What good comes from not believing in yourself? If you need some classes or coaching, OK, get them. But keep moving forward. Learn from mistakes and keep writing.
2. Fill that screen/page. Write fast and furiously. You can make it better later.
3. Remember that most first drafts stink. Virtually no one writes a good first draft. Again, you can make it better later.
4. Practice. I’m definitely a better writer than I was 10 years ago. One year ago. Even yesterday.
5. Trust that you can write well. You can. No ifs, ands, or buts. Need more validation? Reread #1. Start today to give fear of writing the heave-ho. Treat your inner writer with respect, and tell your inner critic to get lost—at least until you need it later on. (Good writing is really good editing. That critic comes in handy when you’re editing. ) Get rid of old bad habits and start practicing with new confidence. We’ll delve into many of these steps in more detail in upcoming chapters, but this is a good place to start—today!
#2: Stand Out from the Rest
Once you’ve addressed your fear of writing, I want you to shift your thinking even further—to how you can write in ways that make you stand out.
Today, many people write poorly, and that means you can excel with just a little extra effort. In turn, you’ll get new jobs and earn promotions. Writing—with a little creativity—can do that for you.
Now I know a lot of people have trouble with the word creativity, but hear me out. All I’m asking is that you take time to make your writing a little more interesting, to write in a way that people want to read. In the process, you’ll get noticed (in a good way!). As I write in Words at Work:
That word—creativity—causes a lot of people a lot of problems. The mere mention of it makes them freeze, something like panic flashing in their eyes. “Oh, I’m not creative,” they say, quick to clear up that misunderstanding, just in case I thought they were capable of writing something more interesting. But I’m not talking about creativity like a giant jolt of electricity that lights up our lives once in a while (though that’s great too). I’m talking about a steady current that feeds us daily. The juice that inspires us to write a successful sales proposal, a persuasive proposal, or an interesting blog. (Page 40.)
And then there are the folks who tell me they are technical writers, so they don’t have to worry about their writing. Huh? They’ve still got to get people to read what they’ve written, and I’ve talked to plenty of people who roll their eyes when asked what it’s like to read that stuff. (As I just mentioned, I know many readers who simply delete dense, boring writing.)
Creativity is the best way I know to enliven your workaday life and keep your readers reading. Creativity takes your writing from ho-hum to how-about-that! You’ll communicate your message better, engage your audiences more fully, and brighten your days. In the process, you’ll stand out.
So how do you get more creative? Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
1. Read the “Week in Review” section in the Sunday New York Times (online at www.nytimes.com). Not only will this keep you current with news and opinions, the outstanding writing will energize your own writing. You’ll notice techniques such as scene-setting, shocking statements, comments written directly to the reader, plays on words, and questions.
During one reading session, I noticed that Thomas Friedman started his column with a future dateline. His content in that section was italicized; when he returned to the present day, the section was set in a regular font. This kind of “what if” approach can enliven reports, proposals, Web copy, even memos. Try it when you want people to think bigger. Or when you want to scare them about thinking too small.
2. Tie your articles, reports, whatever you write, to current events. “Week in Review” not only illustrates great writing techniques but keeps you up on the news. Whenever you can, write about how your subject relates to what’s going on in the world. Is it in sync with or in opposition to a current trend? Does it offer a solution or an opposing view?
3. Practice. Writers love to tell this joke:
A writer and brain surgeon meet at a cocktail party. The brain surgeon sips his martini and says, “I’m planning to take next summer off and write a book.” The writer nods. “What a coincidence!” she says. “I’m planning to take next summer off and do brain surgery!”
Writing is a profession, just like being an engineer, teacher or doctor, and it takes years to perfect. Accept the process and keep practicing.
4. Write from your heart. Writing has changed. Over the past four decades, the accepted style of writing has morphed from the stuffy corporate-speak of the ‘80s to the slap-dash texting of the 21st century. A good balance is somewhere in between—a style that is more conversational and personal. Many of us didn’t learn this in school; in fact, conversational writing was frowned on back in the ‘80s, which makes the shift from august to approachable harder for some. And for anyone weaned on texting, the shift to a more accomplished style is just as difficult. (More on conversational writing in Chapter 31.)
One caveat about writing conversationally: Writing is different from face-to-face conversations. Without eye contact, smiles, and hand gestures, a written “conversation” can flop. Pay attention to make sure yours is clear and appropriate.
5. Tell tales. I love sharing stories in business writing. One, it’s not expected. Two, stories add so much punch through real-life experiences—proof positive that your product/service helps people, examples of how something has benefited others, and so on. (We’ll go into more detail about stories in Chapter 50.)
Sam Horn, author of POP, says this about the power of stories: [A story] takes people out of their critical left brain and switches them into their emotionally engaged right brain. They are no longer on the outside judging your idea; they are inside experiencing it. That’s the essence of buy-in. (Page 174.)
6. Observe. Remove those ear buds, take the bus, walk instead of drive, hang out where people buy your product, listen in the lunchroom, eavesdrop at cafés, go to a library, pay attention. You’ll be amazed at the information and inspiration you gain.
7. Write them down. Oh, the great ideas I’ve lost because I was sure I’d remember them! Carry slips of paper, buy a small (and refillable) notebook, or send yourself a text. Don’t assume you’ll remember.
8. Think like your audience. Get out of your own head and get into the minds of your audience. If you’re writing to:
• Support staff: Make sure you know what they’re thinking, not what you want them to think.
• Clients: Survey them to get on their wavelength.
• Potential customers: Get back to “beginner mind” and write to them from that perspective.
• Prospective employers: Let them know how you’ll make their lives easier and their
9. Read voraciously. Find works you enjoy, and by osmosis, you’ll become a better writer.
#3: Quick Blueprints for All Your Writing
Have you ever wondered how writers come up with all those attention-grabbing blogs, reports, newsletters, proposals—even emails? More than likely, they used one of the oldest methods for developing and inspiring their writing—deconstruction. It’s like finding a magical blueprint for what you want to write.
This easy technique simply involves paying attention to what excites you as you read other people’s writing. Along the way, you’ll learn new ways to engage your readers and jog your memory about ways you already know, but that slip your mind as you race through your busy days. You’ll also discover more about your own personal goals and aspirations.
Put another way, you’ll realize that what you admire, you aspire to. The frisson you feel while reading lets you know that you’re emotionally connected to this writing and would like to write this way too.
I’ve dubbed this time-tested approach “Imitate to Innovate,” a notion that struck while visiting an art museum. A text panel explained that Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt applied for permits to the Louvre to copy the Old Masters. I never thought about copying others—it seemed wrong, painfully close to forgery or plagiarism. (I mention this in Words at Work, but I think it’s important enough to repeat and go into more detail.)
I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about this issue. I’ve come to understand that imitating is an exercise, not a finished product. Degas and Cassatt, for example, developed their own unique styles; they just wanted to practice techniques.
We learn by practicing, something we often forget, especially when it comes to writing. Because we can hold a pen or wiggle our fingers over the keyboard, we think of ourselves as “writers.” But the familiarity of that word gets us in trouble. We dash something off and expect it to get the results we want. Or we review it, and when we realize it isn’t very good, we get discouraged. We compare ourselves to others, especially those who have spent years practicing their writing, and give up. Instead of comparing ourselves—we just need to spend more time practicing (and editing).
In case you’re still worried that this exercise sounds like copying, consider the words of William Zinsser in his classic book, On Writing Well:
“Don’t ever hesitate to imitate another writer—every artist learning his craft needs some models. Eventually, you’ll find your own voice and shed the skin of the writer you imitated. But pick only the best models.” (Page 127)