The word ‘writing’ suggests an artistic craft which only authors do. Yet every day we type emails, comment on posts and message our friends. With the boom of internet communication we are spending more time writing. However, we spend very little time actively developing how we write. Much written information we read and write is non-fiction. In a business setting, our emails and memos set direction. Writing well is therefore key.
I’ve spent the last week reflecting on my work around this newsletter. This was prompted by reading a book around blog writing, which made me concerned that perhaps my articles were a little unfocussed. I did a recent LinkedIn poll, where I was happily surprised to see the majority of people prefer that I write about a variety of subjects rather than an individual theme. (I am always open to feedback though, so please do get in touch around things you like, dislike or want to see more of!).
With my recent focus upon blogging, I realised that I had fallen into this trap. It has been years since I reflected on my writing style, and how I could improve, which for someone writing a blog on personal development, it is not the best example to set! Following a quick Google search, I stumbled upon a recommendation for On Writing Well: the classic guide to non-fiction by William Zinsser, which is renowned on this subject.
I am half-way through reading, yet I have already gained plenty. Of all the principles, brevity, I think, is the most important. Unfortunately, through university we have gained an overly-elaborate writing style. This often means we see long and confusing messages with complicated vocabulary. The point of writing is to give clarity, rather than demonstrate your intelligence. Zinsser pushes us to consider the words we use, and edit out the padding. Even in the last sentence, I first typed this as ‘Zinsser pushes us to better consider the words we use’ – the word ‘better’ is unecessary, and the sentence is clearer without it.
The book also highlights the importance of bringing humanity into our text. I was honestly relieved to read this – I try to give my own perspective as I’ve found it is more interesting, so it is reassuring to read. He also says that people should write the way they speak, which makes sense. If you do not use fancy words when speaking, there is no need to put them in whilst writing (conversely, if you do use them, do write them).
Finally, I gained lots from the answer to his question ‘who am I writing for?’. We often hear about the importance of writing for your audience. Instead, his response is that you should write for yourself. Editors and writers do not know what they want until they have read it. Writing is an act of enjoyment, and if you enjoy writing your readers are more likely to enjoy it too. I found this incredibly refreshing in an age of social media, where we craft texts which are built upon chasing likes. This mantra – from a book written over 30 years ago – is sage advice.
Zinsser is meticulous with his editing and re-editing. I am personally less of a zealot – I believe the important thing is to write something and improve it to a ‘good enough’ level before publishing. Many of us get blocked from writing due to a perfectionist streak or a lack of time. I prefer to emphasise output rather than perfection.
I’ve learnt that my writing improves through brevity and humanity. I tend to add needless ad-verbs, or write in a roundabout way. Looking at what I see in emails and across social media, I believe those who come across best follow these attributes.