In my travels as a freelance writer I often encounter people who tell me ‘I can’t write like that’, or ‘I’m no wordsmith’. But I disagree. I firmly believe that there is a great writer in everyone who — with the right tools — can leap forth and tackle the blank page with confidence and conviction.
At some point all of us have to articulate our boldest ideas and deepest emotions. From the boardroom to relationships, communication is an essential part of our lives. Writing takes those thoughts, feelings, emotions and concepts and commits them to paper. In essence it’s an act of vulnerability.
Herein lies the problem: people struggle with the written word not because they can’t write, but because their fears and insecurities prevent them from writing clearly.
Writing is the act of expressing our innermost thoughts and ideas, forcing us to confront the reality that we are opening ourselves up to judgement — from colleagues, from family, from friends, from complete strangers. Suddenly it becomes very appealing to cloak our words in a veil of obscurity.
Sentences become long and verbose. Ideas become weighed down by jargon. It may lighten the burden of judgement, but it also conceals our true meaning. In the worst cases we end up not saying much at all.
The consequences can range from confusion to lost revenue. Bad writing costs us business, and worse — makes it infinitely harder to get what we want.
For people who look at the blank page with dread, who have ever said ‘I can’t write like that’, or who have ever wanted to make the process of writing easier (and even enjoyable) here are a few tips that might help.
Shorten Your Sentences
When I was studying journalism there was one rule drilled into us above all others: the lead paragraph simply cannot exceed 25 words. There are a few reasons for this; firstly, people’s attention spans are perilously short — if you can’t captivate them in the first few lines, you have no chance of getting them to read any further. The 25-word-limit was a proven way to grab attention. Secondly, anything beyond 25 words starts to look like a wall of text in the confined space of a newspaper column. And who wants to be confronted with a giant slab of words?
So 25 words became the target. Even today you’ll find that very few paragraphs in newspaper articles will exceed 25 words.
If we submitted an article to our tutor with a lead paragraph containing 26 words or more it was quickly sent back for rewriting. Through a brutal revision process we quickly learned that it’s actually possible to say everything we needed to say in less than 25 words. In fact, if you follow the principle that one sentence should contain only one thought or idea, 25 words is ample.
I’ve found it a good rule to apply to all sentences. Of course there will be the occasional exception (I’ve probably broken it several times already in this blog) but if the word count of your sentences regularly reaches 35 or more words, chances are you’re trying to cram too much information into a single sentence and it can be broken in half.
Find the time to focus
Yes — knowing how to use active voice and having a good grasp of the basic elements of style are essential to good writing. But in my opinion, there is something far more fundamental to producing a good piece of writing: learning how to concentrate on it for an extended period.
Many of us are trying to write in a time when we’re faced with an endless stream of text messages, emails, phone calls, drop-ins and notifications. We’re living in a golden age of technology, but the price has been our ability to focus — which has been disastrous for our writing.
Research suggests that:
- A typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption
- It takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the same level of focus prior to the interruption — no matter how small the interruption was
- In one experiment, researchers found that the cognitive output of people who were either regularly interrupted, or on high-alert for interruption, was 20% lower than those who focused distraction-free
The answer is clear — if you want to write well, turn off your phone, close down the inbox and focus. Book a meeting room if you have to, put in some headphones and listen to music, work from a cafe. Sometimes great writing — and great work in general — can only be achieved when we’re willing to shut out the outside world for a few hours.
Writing isn’t some innate skill or talent you either have or don’t have. Like baking or playing the guitar, anyone can become better with some commitment and a little practice. And it doesn’t have to be arduous either. A 15 minute burst a couple of times a week is all it takes to sharpen your wordsmithery — it’s less time than a decent workout and can help your writing infinitely. Better yet, no one ever has to see your practiced writing. Be as crazy and as creative as you like — then delete it afterwards or save it in a buried folder if you feel so inclined.
Here are a few writing drills I use that I find boost my creativity and train me find the right words quickly — a great skill to have when deadlines are pressing:
- 7x7x7: Find the 7th book from your bookshelf. Open it up to page 7. Look at the 7th sentence on the page. Begin a poem or story that begins with that sentence and limit the length to 7 lines.
- Dictionary: Open the dictionary to a random page. Find a word that you do not know how to define. Write an imaginary definition for it. Repeat.
- Pin the Atlas: Find a world map and blindly put your finger on a spot. Then pretend you’re a travel writer and write about a weird experience you had in that particular country.
- Write about yourself. Describe yourself, your surroundings, your frame of mind, your emotional state, but write it all in the third person (he/she, not I/me).
- Sell the pet: Write an advert selling a boa constrictor as a family pet.