(This post takes 13.51 minutes to read.)
I checked the web to see what writing tips were out there. I found a ton. But they were all pretty much the same.
Here are the 10 I found at Forbes.com:
1. Put metaphors on the back burner. 2. Use simple, concrete language. 3. Omit needles words. 4. Stay active. 5. Use English (they mean, don’t use jargon). 6. Curb your enthusiasm (they mean, don’t use exclamation points). 7. Match your subject to your pronoun and verb. 8. Limit your use of adverbs. 9. Know when to use “that” and “which.” 10. Don’t confuse “affect” and “effect.”
Seriously? That’s all you got? (see the list for yourself: http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2015/04/27/10-tips-for-better-business-writing-3/#a166b3d5074a)
I also found some tips at the Harvard Business Review: 1. Think before you write (they mean, “know what YOU want to say before you write”). 2. Cut the fat. 3. Avoid jargon and $10 words. 4. Read what you write (they mean, proofread). 5. Practice every day (as though we could choose to stop writing at work???). See their list: (https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-to-improve-your-business-writing).
If these tips could improve our writing, we’d all be great writers by now because these are versions of the typical advice we’ve heard about writing forever. But is that all there is? Are these truly the main things to know about writing? Even as just “quick tips,” how useful are they, really?
I know you can take golf lessons. My brother was a professional golfer and gave me lots of lessons. (I liked golfing but never got seriously into it...it’s not something my job required.) But what’s interesting about golf lessons is how OCD the golf-obsessed are about trimming strokes from their game. (My Google-search for “golf magazines” returned a half a million hits.)
They’ve analyzed every aspect of golfing: the best clubs, how to grip them, the best shoes, how to stand for every kind of shot, how to swing when you want the ball to go straight, to draw a little to the left, or fade a little to the right…and not only how to swing, but how to take the club back, where your hands and arms should be at the top of the swing, how you should bring the club down toward the ball, when you should shift your weight from one foot to the other, when you should break your wrists, and how you should follow through. They have lessons for driving, for sand shots, for chipping and pitching, for putting. And, let’s not forget the whole mental realm of golfing. They teach you how to control your mind. (Another half million hits on Google for “golf mental approach.”)
That’s a lot of work for what’s really no more than a hobby for most golfers…okay, for some, an obsession.
But in the grand scheme of things, you’d think our everyday writing at work was more important, that knowing how to write well every day is actually more important than knowing how to golf.
And when you think about it for more than a second, you realize all the writing instruction we get, from first grade until we finish with college and grad school. Then we go to work and write pretty much every day. We should be good at it. We should be great at it! If we spent as much time learning to golf as we did taking writing instruction in school, we’d all be pretty darn good golfers.
So how does it come to pass that we need Forbes and the Harvard Business Review (HBR) publishing 10 tips for better writing at work for all of us to see and learn from? How does it come to pass that a guy like me has anything at all new or useful to tell folks to make them better everyday writers?
It defies logic. It really does! (Sorry Forbes, I just had to exclaim.)
Of course, current research says many Americans are functionally illiterate. According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. That's 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can't read. And how many can’t write…hardly at all?
According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “surely one reason so many Americans lack writing skills is that, for decades, most U.S. schools haven't taught them. In 2011, a nationwide test found that only 24 percent of students in eighth and 12th grades were proficient in writing, and just 3 percent were advanced.” I wonder what “advanced” even means?
But I’m not talking about those folks who, for whatever reason, are illiterate or aren’t proficient in basic writing skills. I’m talking about those who work in jobs that do require at least some sentence- and paragraph-writing daily. I assume the “10 Tips for Better Writing” posts are mainly focused on those who are considered relatively “high-performing” individuals.
By the way, can you imagine any of the tips from Forbes or HBR actually improving the writing of the 19% of high school grads who can’t read (not to mention the large group of Americans who never finished high school who can’t read)? Would the writing tips help the 76% of 12th graders who were NOT proficient in writing? Do they really even help those of us in the relatively “high-performing” group?
So why did I get well over 25 million hits when I Googled “writing tips”?
I can imagine only a few reasons.
1. Businesses seem to realize that writing matters. (A study from CollegeBoard, a panel established by the National Commission on Writing, indicates that blue chip businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training—annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees--not new hires.)
But writing is no big deal to most people who have to do it. Those who like it do it well enough already. Those who don’t like it can fake it well enough that nobody calls them on it in any serious way. And those who downright hate it find ways not to do it or just trudge through any of those awkward situations where writing becomes necessary…seeking editorial help where they can.
2. Such “writing tips” mistakenly believe that the endeavor of WRITING involves only surface correctness, knowing where the commas go and don’t go, knowing how to avoid grammar mistakes—thanks little jagged green line when we type in WORD, thanks SpellCheck.
Whenever I tell people I teach “writing,” they always make a joke about how they better watch their grammatical correctness around me. Ha-ha. I’m not laughing, but I get it. One of the main reasons so many people dislike writing is one seven-letter word: G-R-A-M-M-A-R, which, by the way, is hardly taught any more—not because it’s useless but because students find it so painful…the way it’s drilled.
3. The digital age is often blamed for poor writing skills. Actually, we probably write more than ever now. But it’s a different kind of writing in some ways. Some futurists believe technology will soon put an end to the need to write, what with ubiquitous mobile phones, voice-recognition software, robotics, and improved artificial intelligence. I’m closing in on the end of my life. But I will say that I can’t dictate content into voice-recognition software the same way I write.
There’s something about the slowness of putting words on the screen. Words become so much more tangible. Sentences become more obvious. The need for paragraphs is hard to miss. But even more important, I find a kind of logical structure in writing that’s way more difficult for me to capture when I just speak the content. I wish I could speak as well as I write. Maybe lots of people can.
No matter what the reasons for the plethora of “writing tips” online, and given how useless I suspect those tips are in reality, there they are. I guess my big question is Why aren’t they really useful?
Those who know my approach to writing can stop reading now. I’m just going to repeat what I always say about “how to write better.” But seeing all those “10 Tips” lists online did get me thinking about my own “10 Tips” and how I’d prioritize them, and why I should bother…given the millions of other “10 Tips” already available. It’s kind of like inventing a tad bit more air for us to breathe, or helping people who care tie their shoes a little better.
But here goes…
1. If it’s not obvious given the situation, figure out the BIG QUESTION you want to write about. Writing teachers call this “your purpose.” I hate that term. It’s so writer-centric. Good writing is about serving your reader. Your writing will bother and maybe even annoy your reader unless it’s useful information (I leave out the “writing-to-entertain” dimensions of writing here because I’m thinking of everyday utilitarian writing at work).
I call this big question the ISSUE—it’s the reason you’re writing and the reason the reader is reading.
Why is knowing the ISSUE (big question) important to think about before you write? For two main reasons: First, because simply saying what YOU want to say without much thought to your reader is merely “transmitting” information…it’s not true communication. True communication involves two or more people asking and answering questions that are important to those communicating. Writing has to preserve that question-answer dynamic to be successful.
And second, useful content comes NOT from what you want to say! It comes from all the questions your reader needs you to address about the ISSUE in question (the BIG QUESTION). If you don’t understand the ISSUE—why you’re writing and why the reader should care—you can’t know the right questions to address…thus you can’t provide useful content. Factoring the ISSUE into all the reader-questions is Job # 1B (so knowing the ISSUE is Job # 1A!).
2. Factor the ISSUE into all your reader’s questions about the issue in question. That’s right…make a freaking list of them. And put them in order from most important to least important. That way you’ll have a catalyst for generating useful content (see #1, above.)
Okay, soapbox time. CONTENT is not just the information, details, factoids, etc., you t-r-a-n-s-m-i-t via whatever language you invent to capture your precious thoughts. CONTENT has 4 parts: it is the ISSUE itself, all the reader-questions about the ISSUE, the answers to those questions (see #3, below), and any follow-up supporting information required, which turns out to be just smaller questions/answers.
What does this step look like? It looks like a piece of scratch paper with a few bullet points—each a question your reader needs you to address. Or it looks like a neatly typed multi-page question outline, a document a team of writers/researchers/upper-management-stakeholders can discuss in detail before any serious research/writing gets done. Or maybe it’s just thoughts in your head that you keep track of as you write a quick text, email, note, or other brief communiqué. HOWEVER, if you don’t know your reader’s questions about the ISSUE in question, before you start writing, you’re flying blind…or crawling, as the case may be.
3. Answer all your reader’s appropriate questions about the ISSUE in question. (See #1 and #2 above.) Yes, this is the ink that appears on the page or ink-like marks that appear on your phone/screen…that you’re looking at now. (What is that stuff?) But the answers are only the visible aspects of useful CONTENT. So don’t forget that.
How do you find answers? Use your experience, your expertise, and your research…those are the most common ways to find answers. I assume there are also mystical ways. The Muse? Who knew that Francis de Sales is the Patron Saint of Writers and Journalists? But he died in 1622. So you’re probably on your own. But studies show that prayer helps. There’s a nice writing tip!
4. Support your answers as necessary. Beware. Questions beget questions. No sooner have you answered one question than others pop up. Did you know that wind is caused by air flowing from high pressure to low pressure? The Earth's rotation prevents that flow from being direct, but deflects it side to side (right in the Northern Hemisphere and left in the Southern), so wind flows around the high and low pressure areas. Wind doesn’t BLOW so much as it’s SUCKED from high to low pressure zones.
It’s the same way with CONTENT. It gets sucked from the vacuum of a question into the fullness of an answer. And big answers create smaller questions, and avalanche into smaller questions and even smaller questions. It’s a yin/yang kind of thing, trust me.
If the BIG QUESTION (ISSUE) that’s creating the need to write were something like HOW CAN I LEARN TO WRITE BETTER? I could answer with a BIG ANSWER: check out all the writing tips on the web…or, since you’re here at the moment, FOLLOW MY ADVICE.
That big answer leads to an obvious smaller question: okay…what’s your advice? I tell you to follow my 5 tips. Now we have five more questions and five more answers. Lots of wind getting sucked around. To mix metaphors (sorry Forbes), it’s like the Fantasia Broom Stick Scene (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”). Mickey casts a spell on a broom so it will carry water into the house for him. He tries to stop it by chopping it into pieces with an axe, but each splinter becomes a water-carrying broom until there’s quite a flood.
It’s exactly the same way with writing and questions and answers. One question splinters into many more. But the writing can’t stop until all the questions have been addressed.
So many questions, so little time. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Criteria? Condition? Cause? Consequences? Corrective Actions? What is this? Why should I care? What’s the “story”? What’s next?
CONTENT isn’t complete until all the reader’s questions about the ISSUE in question have been addressed and all the questions spawned by those answers have been addressed.
5. Present the information to the reader so it’s clear, concise, readable, appropriately emphatic, easy to navigate…in short, design a reading experience for your reader (D.A.R.E.) using the concepts and skills for organization; document design; graphics; paragraphs-sentences-word choices; and proper mechanics.
Yeah, I could go to 10. You’ll have to see our new iBook, Mindful Workplace Writing or our textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing to see the full set of “tips.”
Why don’t my tips look like everyone else’s? Maybe they’re actually swans and I’m a duck? Or maybe there’s another explanation. I know there are incantations and oaths involved. (Did you know the word “grammar” is closely related to the word “glamor,” which means “magic”?) Where’s Mickey Mouse when I need him? Anyway, you take a broomstick, cast a spell, chop the broomstick into little pieces, until there’s no more water to carry…that’s the real take-away. Pretty simple!