When we hear “writer,” we usually picture someone who makes their living doing it, like an author or a journalist. When I was young I wanted to be a writer but ultimately chose a different path. As it happens, though I don’t refer to myself as a writer, I am one.
So are you.
You write text messages and emails, maybe even letters (yes, a handwritten letter is still a thing). You may post on social media. Your job may require you to write internal memos or documents at work. We use the written word to spread our ideas and knowledge to other people and it is important to write well if you want to be heard.
If you didn’t want to be heard clearly and accurately, you wouldn’t be writing in the first place.
It takes effort to make sure your meaning is clear and has the greatest impact. Happily, to write better you don’t need to take a writing course or be an English major. You can elevate your writing substantially by keeping a few key points in mind and thinking about them when you write.
Why - know your purpose
We write for many reasons. The better you understand your reason, the better your chance of crafting a message that achieves that goal.
- To Inform - You want to give the reader knowledge they don’t currently have. Your reasons for that may be varied - often it is because we feel the information will persuade them to take a particular action or adopt a certain belief. Which leads us to…
- To Persuade - When others agree with our beliefs we feel good (dopamine!) because it confirms that our beliefs are valid. So we try to convince or persuade them to adopt our viewpoint or to take an action that we want them to. It may or may not be beneficial for them.
- To connect - Often we communicate, in writing or otherwise, to connect more deeply with the other person(s). To form a human bond. To understand and to be understood.
- To express - We have a powerful need to express ourselves - to shine our light to the world and let people know we are here and this is how we feel. Poetry is a good example of artistic expression through writing but there are many others.
- To entertain - We want to bring amusement or enjoyment to our readers. This is altruistic but also serves us because it feels awesome to know you have made someone else happy, even momentarily.
Who are you writing for?
Have you ever made a snarky or unkind remark about someone in an email, only to discover you accidentally hit “reply all” and that person received it? It was the wrong message for the wrong audience, even though the audience is unintended.
You need to recognize who the audience of your writing is likely to be so you can communicate in a way they understand. You may or may not know exactly who will read it, but even knowing the general characteristics of your likely audience is helpful.
Keep in mind that your message may spread beyond your intended audience. Since most writing now is (or becomes) electronic, treat it as public and permanent. Beware of writing that will cast you or someone else in a negative light or could be manipulated or taken out of context.
Your writing will vary based on your purpose and audience, but here are a few tips that will help you write better in most situations.
- Keep it simple - Human brains can more easily digest and assimilate information that is presented one at a time. Avoid putting more than one idea in a sentence. Keep the structure simple. For more on this and other great tips, see Scott Adams’ blog post “The Day You Became a Better Writer.” It is itself an excellent example of clear and simple writing.)
- Proofread - This shouldn’t need to be said, but it is important and often ignored. Grammatical and spelling errors will make you and your message feel less credible to your readers. Even if it is short like a text message, but especially for more important communications, make sure you minimize the errors by re-reading your writing before sending it and if it is worth the time, have someone else look at it. You will also reduce those embarrassing (though sometimes hilarious) auto-corrections.
- Fascinate - Use engaging words, but not esoteric. You can write simply yet still grab the readers’ attention by judiciously using words that spark the brain without taxing it. You are not adding extra words, just using better words. Avoid using jargon when possible.
Also, use adverbs sparingly. Make the verbs more interesting and you won’t need them.
- Be a better “noticer” - You become a more interesting person, and therefore a more interesting writer, when you notice more of the world around you. This applies mostly when writing to entertain or express yourself.
Sam Apple teaches a class at Johns Hopkins on noticing and defines it as a combination of close observation and insightfulness. He says, “For the writer, the aim is to notice in a way that makes the object of the noticing feel suddenly new, suddenly more interesting than it has any right to be.”
Get to it!
Implementing just a couple of these tips will improve your writing performance. There are plenty of resources available on writing well, so take some time to explore the best techniques.
Think well and be well.
- Steve Haffner
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