I want to share a few pointers about writing that have really helped me over the years. This blog post started out with just three rules, but then they mysteriously doubled…
Give yourself permission to write junk at first. This idea comes from Anne Lamott in her excellent book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She says:
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.”
James Thurber said something similar:
“Don’t get it right, just get it written.”
My daughter recently introduced me to the concept of the “zero draft.” It’s not even an outline; it’s just your very rough thoughts in very rough order. The point is to write anything at first and, sooner or later, something good will begin to take shape.
Because I believe in crappy first drafts, I don’t believe in writer’s block. That’s just another name for procrastination or lack of confidence. If you have any idea, and any resource or background material at all, you can begin writing.
In my world, K.I.S.S. means starting out as if you’re writing a PowerPoint presentation, not a novel. You only have a short time to hold someone’s attention. Use simpler verbs and adjectives. Make sentences and paragraphs shorter. When you can, put shorter topics into sidebars and turn related items into bullet lists. Write, read, cut, cut, and then cut some more.
I wrote another blog about the importance of structure in writing. At least in business communications, well-structured copy beats great-sounding prose hands down. Don’t make your readers stop and think too much. Don’t leave them wondering what your point was. Make everything flow logically and seemingly effortlessly.
I know, this is so much easier said than done, especially with technical material. But do your very best, because your audience was probably already tired and cranky when they started reading. Don’t make it worse.
This is such a painful fact. I’ve noticed over the years that when I come up with a phrase that I’m sure will cause my readers to decide I’m brilliant, it will have to be cut in the end. In fact, it happened several times when I was editing this post! Maybe I fall in love with a clever concept and try to shoehorn the rest of my text around it. Then everything else becomes awkward and out-of-place.
BTW, I can occasionally salvage this kind of phrase by turning it into a headline or subhead. But more often, I just have to let it go. If this is particularly hard for me, I put it into a file of “copy orphans” that might get adopted into another piece on the same subject in the future. (Yes, I do actually label these files “Orphaned Copy.”)
I still don’t know why this works but we had an interesting discussion about this process in the comments on another one of my blogs, [writing is a team sport]. There is no better way to catch a mistake, a bit of awkwardness, or an unintended slide into boredom than to read your words out loud.