Ins and outs, ups and downs: wisdom for writing at work

Ins and outs, ups and downs: wisdom for writing at work
December 29, 2018 Beth Nyland

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

I wish I had said that, but it was the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Regardless of how you felt about The Scarlet Letter when you read it in high school, your grown-up self must see the wisdom in these words. If you want your message to be consumed and understood with ease, be prepared to strive and struggle with the words.

Inspired by this clever sentence, I’ve been thinking about other dichotomies that apply to the writing and communicating we do at work. My statements aren’t as catchy as Hawthorne’s one-liner. Even so, I hope you find some wisdom here.

You can write a draft in minutes, but editing may take hours.

Set a timer for three minutes, and you’ll be amazed how much content you can produce. Somehow, time pressure rattles loose the ideas in your head, so you can shake them onto the page.

Good thing. Because you need a clear head for editing. And that takes time.

How much time? Perhaps we’d all benefit from a scientific formula to calculate the ideal writing:editing ratio. As far as I know, that does not exist. But if I had to invent one based on personal experience, I’d say it’s at least 1:20, and probably more like 1:200. So if you write for three minutes, plan to edit for at least an hour, and allow extra time if you want to be concise, because …

It takes a long time to write short.

Occasionally, a flash of brilliance will occur, and you’ll write a perfectly pithy phrase in one rapid go. But more often, the right words come after several attempts. Or a hot shower. Or a long walk. Or a big glass of wine. Or all of the above.

Concise statements may not even occur to you when you’re staring at a page or screen. Super-short sentiments are more likely to surface when your expectations are low and your guard is down. Silly brainstorming sessions. Bouts of insomnia. Moments of defeated surrender. When at last you decide you have NO idea, you will produce the BEST idea.

People don’t read, unless that’s all they can do.

We are expert skimmers. Give us a page, and we’ll catch the headlines. Show us a 10-step plan, and we’ll retain the first three points. Write us a book, and we’ll ask for a picture.

And that’s how we respond to the very best written communications. Toss in a mistake—a misspelled word, a comma out of order, or the wrong “there”—and that’s all we will see.

The standards are even more challenging for presentations. We may not read your email messages, but project a text-heavy PowerPoint slide and we’ll hang on your every printed word … and not hear a thing you say.

The more specific the message, the more general its appeal.

Think about the television ads that pull at your heartstrings. Like that coffee commercial where the soldier comes home and surprises his mom. Picture it: The porch. The soldier with his duffel, ringing the bell. The woman, opening the door and gasping with surprise.

That’s never happened to me. I’ll probably never be the soldier or the mother. And yet, because of the details, I understand. I am overcome by emotion, and I love that coffee company for telling such a good story.

We can extend this logic to vocabulary as well. Words like strategy, solution, and synergy are generalities that appeal to almost no one. Digging deeper, we can name specific details that bring our stories to life.

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In our Story Mode workshops and coaching sessions, Jill and I are always telling people that tension is a required element in a good story. How fitting then, that business storytellers get to grapple with the tension of these contrasting truths of communication.

Can you think of others? Let’s add to the list!


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