Today Forbes shared 8 recommendations for business writing, including avoiding unnecessary jargon and writing “as though you’re talking to the person face-to-face.” Simplicity, directness, and a suitable tone are very important aspects of writing, but not just in the commercial world.
Poor writing is also a plague on the non-profit / social good sector. Improving organizational writing is sometimes the least painful, most effective upgrade for organizations that otherwise add incredible benefit to the world.
There are two suggestions in the Forbes post that are much more fundamental than tone or language level: Know Why You’re Writing and Understand Your Readers. I’ll deal with each of these in turn.
Know Why You’re Writing
A writer reaches out to readers through her words. When she is clear about her purpose, her quality of thought and expression always improve.
I edit routine membership communications for a non-profit president each month. She doesn’t self-describe as “a writer” though she’s successfully written membership columns every month for the last three years and always gets positive feedback from the membership list. As we’re reviewing her columns, I ask her questions like “Why do you need to say this now? What impact do you want to have on the people who read this? What action do you want them to take when they put your article down?”
Simple questions like these challenge writers to examine their objectives and intentions. A writer’s intention is the what; without conscious purpose driving content development and organization, a piece of writing loses its potential for shared meaning and impact. So the final draft of an article isn’t a bridge to nowhere; it’s the how, the means by which you can connect with others and establish a different relationship with them than you had before. If you could achieve those intentions on your own, you wouldn’t need to write at all.
But what about freewriting? Freewriting is an exercise in goal-less, expressive, and unconscious writing that some writers use to spark inspiration and as part of their personal voice training. Beyond training, though, writing without an intention often yields text that’s more appropriate as a journal entry; while it can inspire public articles, it should normally remain private. Freewriting will not directly support development of professional reports, program updates, or business articles; intentional writing will.
If you’re writing for other people in your organization or for the general public, whether to prompt interest in the work you’ve done or to increase member engagement, know why you’re writing.
“To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.” — Warren Buffett
Understand Your Readers
The second critical principle, understand your readers, is the foundation of rhetoric: knowing your audience and their motivations, triggers, and barriers gives your writing its best chance to stick with the people who read it.
Understanding your readers is both an exercise in empathy and an opportunity to deepen the connection between you and the people you’re in a word-mediated relationship with. Acknowledge that your readers will be different from you and that your writing wouldn’t even be necessary if they already thought as you did. You’re only writing to them because of them.
If you’re used to framing your writing as your personal chance to express yourself rather than as a social invitation to dialogue, slip out of your chair and slip into the chairs of your readers. Who, exactly, is reading what you write? What motivates or concerns them? What constrains their reading time or frame of mind? What background knowledge do they bring to your conversation? What do they need? What do they expect from you?
Sometimes you’ll be able to answer these questions based on prior observation, and sometimes you’ll need to take people out to lunch and talk. Some people will answer a targeted survey or email. And some will never engage you. You won’t always be able to get direct information, but do your best.
Use the results to help you building your writing, its argument, the details, the evidence.
Read. And Write, Often
A lot of people are like the non-profit president I work with: once upon a time they had a composition class and it didn’t fit, and now they’re “not a writer.” Nonsense.
Just today, tech entrepreneur Guy Kawaski offered 10 recommendations in a webinar about non-profit story-telling and independent publishing. One was Write Every Day. For Guy, daily writing is in the same category of importance as hugging one’s children and flossing. And he’s right.
Practice builds proficiency, and proficiency makes skillfulness possible.
Think of all the other things you do every day that are second or third nature to you now. Were they always? Are they all easy? Or are some of them near-native now because of the amount of practice you’ve had with them? Just as a non-profit president can build proficiency with an unfamiliar skill, so too you can support your facility with words by radically increasing your active exposure to them: absorb them through reading, and use them through writing.
Stephen King’s writing standard of “2,000 words a day” is a lot higher than most people will feel comfortable aiming for. Perhaps 2,000 words or 4-6 hours a day reading and writing is also more than the time a business writer would normally need to improve his or her craft and comfort level: any extra time over zero will have a positive impact. I recommend a minimum of 45 minutes continuous writing daily—and private journal writing does count if your only goal is general development. I also recommend making that 45 minutes “sacred” (that is, make it a personal commitment and don’t skip it on days you don’t feel like it, and make sure the space you write in is clear/clean enough for you to focus.) It doesn’t have to be perfect text. It just has to be written text.
But if you also have a long-term project like a large report, research study, or a book, daily on-topic engagement is important not just for writing facility but also to keep you connected with the project. When I was creating my dissertation, I had a very big idea based on four core constructs and more than 600 pages of primary sources. It was like carrying an ocean in a plastic bag. I learned quickly that if I let too much time lapse without reading, reflecting on, or writing on-topic in addition to whatever other daily writing I did, my big idea would drown me. I had a couple of salt-water soakings before I settled on up to 1 day off the research schedule per week. You may have to experiment with your own ideal scheduling so that you’ll get your project done.
Whatever you decide about timing, write. Write about dreams. Write about movies. Write about technology. Write about your family. Write about your business. Write about religion or secularism or whatever moves you most. Doesn’t matter who you are: just write. You will improve.