The basic act of writing seems simple to most: Put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. What foils many would-be authors? The defining elements of content and structure. Because most professionals are required to write memos, reports, department communications, and the like, a facility for writing effectively can have monumental results:
- Less time spent reworking documents
- Confidence in your materials, ensuring that your audience members are getting the information they need
- A well-informed audience
- The ability to communicate more clearly and accurately
Writing is a craft, and some people are naturally predisposed to superb writing. Yet even critically acclaimed authors suffer bouts of writer' s block. Fortunately, all writers can improve by following certain processes and mind-set management devices.
Here are tips that we have gathered and used:
- Research. Be certain that you have the data, perspective, and/or ancillary information you need to write about your topic (including having an opinion on the topic) before you begin. Otherwise, you' ll flounder from issue to issue and not end up with a coherent, meaningful piece.
- Start with a theme sentence. Write a sentence or two that encompasses the key point of your communication. Do not paralyze yourself by editing this sentence ad infinitum. Your theme sentence serves as an anchor that you refer back to throughout the writing process to ensure that you' re sticking to the point.
- Create an outline. Walk yourself through the points that you want to make in the written piece instead of banging on your keyboard, spilling every thought you' ve ever had about the topic. Again, without a path to follow, you' ll wander around the topic for hours before reaching your key point. This is not to say that during the research stage you can' t "brain dump" all of your information into a rambling journal entry. If this activity fuels your thinking, great. Just don' t allow it to hinder the writing process.
- Nurture your creative side. All mechanics and no free-flowing brainstorming make for dull writing. Play with toys, surf the Web, talk with colleagues -- do whatever it takes to get both sides of your brain into the act of writing.
- Allow space and time to write. Writing well requires both time and an uncluttered mind. Ensure that you' ve created the mental space to write, and allow yourself a block of time to set your work down and revisit it with a fresh eye. You' ll be amazed at how clearly you' re able to see your work as your audience will and make the appropriate adjustments. Don' t force your writing. (In Life Work, author Donald Hall refers to the time it will take for a piece to write itself.) If you' re under deadline, create a backup system, such as a peer reviewer, to offer objective perspective on your behalf.
- Learn from others' edits. Ask the people reviewing your work to write their comments on the page for you, as opposed to making the changes to the document and sending it out. This way, you can pick up on organizational writing preferences, for example, and learn rules of writing such as AP Style and options for tightening content.
- Practice. Don' t let your writing skills atrophy. Create exercises and opportunities to continue writing in a variety of styles for a variety of audiences.
- Take action and write. When you' re ready to write, just write. Don' t self-edit as you write, worry about punctuation, or go back and refine your theme sentence. Do get your key points on the page, use the language that first comes to mind, and realize that this is your first pass at the content. Self-editing and instantaneous proofreading can be huge obstacles in the writing process. You' re pulling your mind into the nitty-gritty details before it' s had a chance to release all of the information - somewhat like slamming on your brakes at 90 miles an hour. Revving up to 90 after this screeching halt is tough. Doing it repeatedly will blow out your mental engine.
This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization or situation. Please use it mindfully. The most effective communication plan should be tailored to your unique needs, so don't hesitate to get individualized assistance from a communication expert.
Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA. Coauthor Sarah Fenson is Ivy Sea's Guide to Client Services.