To write better, stop agonizing over these 4 things

To write better, stop agonizing over these 4 things
February 27, 2017 Beth Nyland

Writing at work causes so much stress. So many questions. So much doubt.

Is this comma in the right place? Is that a run-on sentence? Do you need who or whom? If you click “send” now, how long ‘til everyone discovers just how verbally clueless you really are?

Style and accuracy do matter. A single typo can land your message in the trash bin, and bad grammar can quash your credibility. But the more you fret and obsess over those details, the more likely you are to kill the very qualities a writer needs most: confidence and creativity.

So relax a little. Here are four things you can stop worrying about when you write.

1. Stop trying to get it right the first time.

Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be good. It just needs to be done.

The moment you start analyzing the quality of your writing—second-guessing and correcting your work—is the moment you switch off your creativity. You’re not writing anymore; you’re editing. Editing is an act of judgment, not creativity.

Editing too soon is premature evaluation. It’s invasion of your own creative space. Don’t do it.

Let yourself write a long, rambling mess of ideas. Don’t stop until you’ve run out of things to say. Once you’ve exhausted your creative mind, take a break. Later, you can and should return to the page with a red pen and a critical eye. Correct spelling, insert commas, reorganize points, and make your message pretty. This is the mission of your second draft (and third, and fourth, and fifth)—never your first.

2. Stop composing messages in order.

As long as you’re liberating your creativity, free yourself from sequential order, too. This applies to the way you draft a message and the way you deliver it.

“I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.”
~ Comedian Steven Wright

Opening lines can be the hardest to write. Paralyzing, even. But no one is insisting that you compose your message in order. If you’re stuck on the introduction, skip it. Start in the middle. Write the ending first. Begin with whatever comes easiest, so you can build momentum.

Once you have all the pieces on the page, think carefully about what belongs on top. Suppose your reader spends just 10 seconds looking at your message. Is your priority to share rationale, or to make a recommendation? To explain background, or to call for action? Spoiler alert: short attention spans don’t survive dramatic builds and epic chronologies. Make your point fast and up front.

3. Stop cranking out paragraphs.

Here’s what a page full of paragraphs says to the busy reader: “Close the door and clear your calendar, because I have a lot to say. To decipher this message, you’re going to need time, focus, and patience. Brace yourself, because this reading is work.”

The busy reader’s likely response? “Maybe later,” or “No thank you,” or “No effing way!”

If you want to capture and keep attention, ditch your allegiance to the five-sentence paragraphs of fifth-grade composition (topic sentence, three supporting sentences, summary sentence). Instead, portion your message into small pieces the reader can see and consume at a glance:

  • Let one powerful sentence—like a call to action—stand alone.
  • Give skimmers headlines that reveal the gist of your message.
  • Organize groups of ideas (features, reasons, advantages, etc.) in bulleted lists.
  • Outline step-by-step instructions in numbered lists.

Better yet, replace at least some of your words with pictures. Our brains can process images 60,000 times faster than text, and our minds are more likely to retain visual than verbal information. That’s why kittens and infographics are winning the internet.

[To see this post digested into an infographic, click to enlarge the image at right.]

4. Stop trusting yourself as editor.

If you’re not a confident writer or proofreader, this advice is a no-brainer. Give yourself—and your reader—the gift of a second set of eyes.

But what if you are a skilled reviewer? You’re a champ at spotting flaws in other people’s work. What’s more, you’re super-proud of what you’ve written—confident that your purpose is clear and your logic is flawless.

You, my friend, need an editor. Big-time.

Even the most eagle-eyed proofreaders go blind to their own mistakes, and the most heavenly writing benefits from a devil’s advocate.

Pass your message to a friend, colleague, or even a perfect stranger. Have them read your work, and be open to their feedback. Better yet, have them read your writing out loud to you. While they read:

  • Notice how your words flow through their vocal cords. Do they sound as smooth as they did from that voice inside your head?
  • Watch their facial expressions. What words prompt a smirk, raised eyebrow, or wrinkled forehead?
  • Listen to their hesitations. Does that awkward pause signal an error in spelling or punctuation, or a flaw in logic?

Stop stressing about perfection, order, and paragraphs—and for heaven’s sake, ask for a little help. Letting go of these obsessions makes writing easier, messages stronger, and you saner.


Photo credit: Emergency Brake via flickr

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