Today I'd like to share with you a little aha moment about writing. When I have important writing to do, I find myself thinking about it...a lot. As in, need another stalk of string cheese...think, think, think...better run to the store, almost out of dental floss...listen to some music...watch some TV with the sound off. Oh yeah, that thing I have to write. Okay...let's see. Hmm, suddenly a great idea for a screen-play pops into my head:
Naïf ad copywriter, assigned to create a new for-profit religion for atheists, falls hard for the gorgeous woman contracted to kill him when he goes rogue trying to save the world. FARFA! Finally AReligion For Atheists.
Ahem...right...that thing I was supposed to write....
Well, as it turns out, you can waste a whole lot of your precious time, productively, and get yourself to a place where you actually look forward to the actual fingers-on-the-keyboard writing that's just lying there like a bear trap ready to snap your soul in two.
Here's how to make procrastination work for you and improve your writing (kind of like putting globs of whipped cream on your broccoli)....
I believe I have a much more productive and systematic way to help students from first grade through college become better writers and to help writing teachers become better teachers. The following discussion does two things:
1) it briefly analyzes the big problem--from first grade through college, students aren't being taught to write as well as society needs them to--and
2) it offers a conceptual and practical solution--a solution that has helped writers write better in the classroom and the workplace over the past 35+ years of my teaching....
This is a long post that will take you into territory that's unusual for those interested in workplace writing. Fair warning! I'm interested in everyday writing as an everyday Mindfulness Practice. So here goes....
That's the trick! (...to making your workplace writing impressive)
You probably assume I'm talking about something easy, a quick TRICK, something you can learn in a flash, a quick solution to a difficult problem. Presto! ...as if by MAGIC. These days, how we all crave as many quick FIXes as we can get!
Writing, according to Aristotle, has three purposes: to inform, to persuade, and to delight (entertain). I imagine these purposes on a line. To the far left is writing to inform. Just to the right of that is writing to persuade. And at the extreme right is writing to delight and entertain.
While I’ve dedicated much of my working life to the first two purposes, I’m not unacquainted with the far extreme of writing to delight. This blog post celebrates that far extreme where words transform into art. But specifically, this post is in honor of the Nobel Prize-wining poet Derek Walcott, my teacher, who died on Friday (March 17, 2017) at 87….
We all tend to follow the path of least resistance. That doesn’t mean we don’t ever work hard. Sometimes working to grow a business consumes your attention 24/7…but there’s no other path to success. But, as Mark Cuban reminds us in his surprisingly brilliant little book, How to Win at the Sport of Business (https://www.amazon.com/How-Win-Sport-Business-Can-ebook/dp/B006AX6ONI), whatever you’re selling will fail if it doesn’t offer the customer the path of least resistance.
And that’s why my HOCs & LOCs approach to writing—as brilliant as it is, as much as students whom I force it on end up loving it and people in my writing seminars who have paid to hear what I have to say about writing love it and retain its main ideas over many years—is having a really tough time catching on. My bad!
I wanted to talk to you now after the first 3 weeks of class about 4 things that are very important to your success moving forward in our class. So in this rather long email, I’ll talk about the following:
By definition, “editing” appears to be a reactive exercise—we have a text and edit it, finding and fixing weaknesses and whoppers. But some of the most important, time-saving editing editors can do should come before any words are written, or, to be more precise, before any drafts have begun. How does that work?
Over lighting is an international concern, with much of the Earth’s population living under light-polluted skies, which, if you live in an urban or suburban area, all you have to do to see this type of pollution is go outside at night and look up at the sky.
Maybe a good report receives great applause and appreciation from its audience and sounds like this?
In this special report there is the inclusion of recommendations whose intention is to improve the cost‑effectiveness of state programs, such as the Department of Health Care Services, School‑Based Medi‑Cal Administrative Activities programs audit that identified weaknesses in the contracts between the local educational consortia or local governmental agencies and their claiming units that effective Health Care Services’ oversight should have prevented.
Why don’t sentences in a lot of workplace writing—from email to complex, team-generated reports (and probably this very blog) SING? And how might we allow them to croon and warble just a little more pleasantly?
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.”
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?....
What came first, the thought or the need to think it?
While you wonder about this question, let me continue…I’ll soon tell my answer and why I think this riddle should matter to writers and writing teachers.
In the “Faculty Robing Room” yesterday at my college’s 150th-anniversary winter graduation ceremonies, I chatted with some colleagues—smart, excellent writers/writing teachers—about whether students in a freshman writing class produce in their writing assignments imaginative, energetic content.
“No, not so much”…their answer didn’t surprise me. What did make me gasp a little was how they conceived of CONTENT....
If you like puzzles, you should like playing with sentences…as it turns out, “writing” is a lot like playing with LEGOs. All it takes is determination to have fun and knowledge of a few phrases that allow us to see words and clusters of words as our puzzle pieces, which can be snapped together to create just about anything we can imagine. Having fun putting sentences together will make your writing a little better....
Sitting in a recent meeting of college writing teachers, who were grumbling because they couldn’t get their students to earnestly revise their writing assignments, I realized why re-vision is often nearly impossible for students and how to solve the problem....
Welcome to a new feature on this blog. Every few months, I'll post this offer to answer writing questions you might have. Just post a question in the "comments" section, and I'll answer. It may even be "the right answer," thought-provoking, or...useful.
She points out that we’re doing more writing in the workplace than we did 30-40 years ago, so writing skills have become even more important. But employers see that new employees lack strong writing skills. She points out that even graduates from the nation’s top business schools often lack necessary writing skills.
I’ve seen this to be true in my 30 years of writing consulting for the public and private sectors, working with the best and brightest graduates from programs in public policy, engineering, and business, etc.
Ms. Holland suggests one cause for this problem: we focus more on math and science in schools to the exclusion of writing classes. This may be true. But I believe we teach writing ineffectively. We teach students to write essays. Writing essays does not develop the kind of critical-thinking and writing concepts and techniques students will need on the job.
In high school and college, when students are in a writing class, most likely they’re writing essays. Most likely they’re taught how to write primarily by writing essays. Perhaps essays have their place in the curriculum. But essays should be excluded from most writing classes and saved for advanced classes that seek to teach students expressive writing and eloquence.
The essay is a bad way to teach writing for most beginning and intermediate writing classes…from first grade through college. Here’s why…..
And workplace writers are further admonished to keep it simple (stupid): K.I.S.S. But how?
If you have a simple message—Be at the meeting at 2PM, Suite A—KISS is pretty easy. But as the message becomes more complex, the more complex it becomes to keep the message simple.
If you’re stuck, intimidated, frustrated, or confused by trying to figure out what you should say and how you should say it, all while keeping it simple, this blog post is for YOU! You should love to write about as much as you love to talk, right?
(1) You need to gain a little insight into how readers read.
(2) You need to understand how writing communicates.
Knowing these two things will help you take on any writing task with confidence, while being a good K.I.S.S.er…..
Whether a piece of writing, from a tweet or text to an email or full-blown report, is itsy-bitsy or multitudinous, delivered electronically or in print, it must fork over useful information or it won’t be read.
(This, btw, is why we dislike most writing done in school—we call it “writing for teachers”—because it usually takes the USEFUL out of USEFUL INFORMATION. It’s written for a teacher or a phantom reader, not a real USER/READER.)
Therefore, we wish to change the conversation about “writing.” We’d like to start calling it CUIng—Clustering Useful Information.
Find out why writers should love their readers the way galaxies love their black holes….
When most people think about “writing,” they think of the sentences, the choice of words, proper punctuation and grammar, how sentences are clustered into paragraphs. But writing is far, far more than that.
When teachers of business/technical writing classes think about their subject, they usually think in terms of generic genres—types of writing like email, memos, good-news letters, bad-news letters, blog posts, infographics, social media, the proposal, the process report, the analytical report, the résumé and cover letter, etc., etc. But workplace writing is far, far more than that.
As we ask the question: How do you teach people to write well in the digital age? we think this new approach to workplace writing is finally beginning to change the conversation about workplace writing. Here are five ways we’re making a big difference….
As Stanford professor of organizational behavior, Robert Sutton, says, “The gap between knowing and doing is larger than the gap between ignorance and knowledge.” I’ve felt relatively successful in creating a systematic (systems-based) approach to workplace writing that students find extremely useful and say that they embrace (here’s what they tell me: http://qcgwrite.com/studentgallery). Although they’ve understood the concepts, their first writing efforts don’t always reflect them. They seem “to know,” but they are challenged “to do.”
Here’s how I help them bridge that gap…by reading, a lot, and very analytically.
The college students in my writing classes are, by now, digital natives. Writing, for them, is something done on a phone…or maybe a tablet/laptop. These students clearly don’t know the standard comma rules. The evidence shows that they know what a comma is, and they obviously see them in some of the more officiated writing online. We know they know what a comma is because they usually sprinkle them, sparingly, through the college essays they’re required to write. But they were not taught the standard comma rules, as I was in the second half of the 20th century, and they don’t care. Should they? Should we?
If you learn to punch up your punctuation, proofreading, and paragraphs; spit-shine your sentences; and touch up your typing, you may feel better about your writing, but until you go up in your helicopter and get a panoramic view of what writing really is, your writing may not become much more efficient or effective….
I claim that workplace writing is 90% about content and 10% about presentation, in the same way a cargo ship is 90% about the cargo and only 10% about the ship. Of course, if the ship itself (the 10%) sinks, the 90%—that valuable content—is lost. Our conversations, by the way, are also 90% about content.
You should totally be checking your documents for adequate content before you worry too much about the particulars of presentation. So, what criteria/standard should you use to evaluate the adequacy of content in any workplace document?
There is just SO much information/advice out there on writing, by many experts, who mean well and have their own approaches to teaching others to write well, approaches they swear by, approaches backed by rhetorical theory or possibly the latest brain research from neuroscientists.
However, I find myself on an island, all alone, with an idea about writing and teaching writing that's different, perhaps idiosyncratic, and pretty much iconoclastic. Not everything I have to say about writing is new and out of the blue, but my whole approach is certainly unlike the others.
Students tell me they love it. Those in the workplace I've trained over 30+ years tell me they love it. But academics are skeptical and tend to tune me out. So what makes me an expert in writing and teaching writing?
Most people think of writing as just the sentences, the grammar, punctuation, spelling. But it's way bigger than that.
We judge writing the way you'd judge someone at a speed dating event...holistically...by the CONTENT that's immediately apparent, by the FLOW of information, by the APPEARANCE, and by the overall STYLE....
First impressions matter! When you read any kind of workplace writing, print or on-screen, you should start judging it holistically simply by considering your "level of interest" and your "level of effort"...
Using our Mastering Workplace Writing textbook in your business or technical writing class means less time grading for you and more specific writing skills for your students.
Traditionally a business or technical writing class in college is built around having students write some combination of the following: a good-news letter, a bad-news letter, a short report, a research report, a résumé, a job letter, a blog post, an infographic, etc., in an attempt to mimic formats used in the workplace.
This approach does not give students the writing skills they’ll need when they go to work for real. (We know because we’ve worked with newly hired college grads over 30 years at such places as KPMG, the GAO, NASA, NSA, JMT Engineering, Catholic Charities, the Departments of State, Justice, Commerce, and many, many others.)....
We’ve created this blog to start a conversation with you about workplace writing, to share our knowledge and experience.
Having each spent 35 years working with writers in their workplaces on the writing that’s critical to their business success and teaching writing to graduate and undergraduate students, Kevin and I have been lucky to work with many talented people and establish on-going relationships with many fascinating agencies and businesses, including the GAO, NASA, KPMG (pictured below), the Army Research Lab, JMT Engineering, Whiting Turner Contracting, NSA, the Departments of State, Justice, Commerce, and auditors nationally and internationally, to name just a few.....