How to Write the Shit Out of Something
I’m not a writer, but I write a lot. I probably mangle the English language more often than I realize, but I’m not sure these mistakes really matter. I write because putting form to ideas helps me make sense of what I’m thinking. Sometimes readers tell me that one of my posts impacted them, which is a nice—and hugely appreciated—perk.
Recently, a few people have asked me to critique their writing. I feel ill-equipped to do so; nevertheless, I’ve tried to lend a hand. Most times I don’t even mention grammar or syntax. Instead, I find myself asking questions about purpose, permission, and voice. Given that I’m not trained as a writer, my feedback may be flawed; that said, I like words and have found some success using them. Following is the small list of tips I’ve collected. Maybe they’ll help you too.
Have a Point
Most who ask me to provide feedback on their writing are worried about their use of grammar. I appreciate this concern, and sometimes share it. However, grammar should come second to communicating a point. Before you type even a word, determine what you want to say. That’s your most important concern. What does the world need to hear right now? How can you affect the reader with your story? Can you help your audience understand something they currently don’t, or, change their minds in some way? Get that part sorted, and the grammar shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
I try to limit my writing to subjects I am well versed in, or feel very closely connected to. Sometimes I’ll talk about a subject I’m working to understand, but (again) this will be a topic that means something to me. I feel like this level of investment and interest gives me permission to write on a topic. Put another way: no one wants to read about dieting from someone who’s never struggled with their weight; no one wants business advice from someone who’s never run a business; and no one wants design tips from someone who doesn’t actively practice design. So, before writing anything, ask yourself if you have the right to.
In grade school, we’re forced to generate papers of a certain length. This objective tends to distract students from the real purpose of writing: to convey information. In most cases, doing this efficiently—and with brevity—is endemic of better writing, not laziness. Nevertheless, we’re trained to treat more as better, and this is a hard habit to break. So work through every piece you write and see how many words you can remove. In most instances, you’ll find that even ones that seemed important, aren’t.
Readers of non-fiction don’t just want to hear your opinion, they want to somehow improve as a result of having invested their time in your writing. Respect your readers’ time and needs. Don’t only talk about a problem or situation; outline a course of action or potential opportunities. Doing so lends shape to your argument, and helps readers see how your perspectives might look when applied.
Use Your Words
There’s an old trick for writing sales proposals. You start by writing them plainly, and afterwards you run some of your words through a thesaurus, with hopes of making your pitch sound more impressive. If you’re working on a response to a governmental RFP, this approach is worth considering. For everything else, I’d encourage you to avoid this sort of posturing. No one wants to read a piece in which you are pretending to be someone else. Use the same words you use in everyday discussion, and do so proudly. Some will love you for it. Others will hate you for it. (You probably wouldn’t have won over the ones in the latter camp anyway.)
I don’t write just because it’s an important part of my work. I write because I love words and ideas. When I began doing so, I tried to write to impress people (i.e. magazine editors). None of them wanted anything to do with me. I took a different approach when I started blogging. I wrote what I felt like writing, and readers responded positively. In fact, some editors started to come to me as a result. Although you certainly need to remain aware of your audience, you should make writing fun for yourself. If you don’t enjoy what you’re writing, others probably won’t either.
In spite of how easily blog posts can be updated, many seem to avoid doing so—as though such actions weaken the author’s position. I feel differently—particularly with this article. As time passes, and I witness other good ideas and habits for writing, I’ll add them to this post.