Writing is how we define ourselves for someone we don’t get to meet.Richard Saul Wurman, Founder of the Ted Talks
1. In the job market, the better writer wins.
In Rework, Jason Fried of Basecamp advises entrepreneurs to “hire the better writer.” His justification for this is simple – the better writer is the better thinker. But the issue is much bigger than writing. How does an employer choose the best employee? A credential like a college degree used to be a good filter, but not anymore. Standards have dropped and too many people have too many degrees. How many MBA’s does the world really need, anyway?
Smart employers, at the kind of companies everyone wants to work for, pay more attention to what a person has done than the padding on their resume. Writing about a subject, industry or issue not only qualifies as doing something, it immediately shows an employer how you think. And if you think this only applies to hip software development companies like, consider that when the National Commission on Writing surveyed 120 major American corporations they concluded that writing is a “threshold skill for hiring and promotion among salaried employees.”
2. The business of writing is business.
For the majority of human history literature has not been the point of writing. And, until recently, it wasn’t the point of writing education. This change in focus has led to the crisis in writing that faces us today.
The earliest samples of writing known to man are business documents — a recipe for beer (manufacturing process) and a record of oil deliveries (ledger). These first writing samples date from 2700 B.C. Six hundred or so years later, someone pressed the Epic of Gilgamesh into clay tablets. But after that, you have another 2,000 years before we get to anything that even remotely resembles a modern novel.
3. What you say is more important than how you say it.
As most of us have come through school the attempts to train us to write have created a counterproductive feedback mechanism. Papers have minimum page lengths where they should have maximum word counts. In preparation for standardized tests we have been rewarded for using words that no one should ever use.
Arbitrary concerns of style (MLA vs. Chicago vs AP) are often emphasized more than the clarity and power of writing. Generations of students have been bludgeoned with false and counterproductive rules such as “Thou shalt not split the infinitive.” Who wants to live in a world where Captain Kirk isn’t allowed “To boldly go”? As Winston Churchill so observed of another variety of literary insanity, “Not ending sentences in prepositions is something up with which we shall not put.”
Having a point, making it clearly and well, these are the only sure and durable rules of writing. The skill of writing is far too personal and complicated to be a trainable skill. Training is for rats, feeder bars and high-school kids who work in frozen yogurt franchises for the summer.
4. No amount of work can help a bad idea.
You cannot polish a turd. Writing and rewriting are the process of discovering where your thinking is sloppy or wrong. That the process is sometimes uncomfortable is not your failure as a writer, it is your success as a thinker.
5. Only 20% of us do productive work. The other 80% are trying to kill us with crappy email.
Crisp subject lines, clear requests for action and as few words as possible will win friends, influence people and help get things done. Not getting to the point (or not having one in the first place) costs time and money.
Email puts your writing front and center every working day. Send a bad email and it can be forwarded to everyone in the world (in an instant) for free. It’s not fair. It’s not sane. It’s just the way it is.
6. The kindest thing you can do for your audience is not waste their time.
As Arthur Miller said, “Attention must be paid.” No matter how wealthy some of us may be, none of us are rich in time or attention. The fewer words you can use to get your point across, the less of a person’s attention you will use. And the more they will like you. Get to the point, and the 20% of the people who keep the world turning will recognize you as one who is worthy of time, attention and assistance.
7. Use words as if you were paying for them.
It should hurt to use more words than you have to. You should feel like you are saving money when you find a way to cut a word out. Big, exotic, fancy words are more expensive than small, simple and ordinary words. Split is a good 10 cent word. Bifurcate costs $5.00.
It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t ever use expensive words. It’s that, when you do, you should make sure you get good value for them. You don’t wear a $1000 suit to dig postholes. You don’t wear a pair of overalls to the Opera.
The 100 most used words in the English language make up 50% of all written material. Twenty-five nouns, twenty-five verbs, twenty-six adjectives and fourteen prepositions grant you an astounding command of the language.
To be able to convey weighty and momentous ideas with simple words is the height of the writer’s skill. Spring may be refulgent, but describe it that way and no one will know what you are talking about.
8. The rules are not the game.
A knowledge of the rules of soccer doesn’t make you any better at handling the ball. Knowing music theory doesn’t mean you can play the guitar. Between the rules and the skill there is something else. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be concerned with grammar. At its best, grammar, style and usage advice is nothing more than the work of thoughtful people trying to explain how the language can best be used. As with any kind of problem solving, seeing how someone else has handled a similar problem is always good thing to do.
But recognize that you can follow all the rules and still lose the game.
9. “Writer’s block was invented in California by people who couldn’t write.” – Terry Pratchett
If the output of a process is bad, don’t check your horoscope, check the process. Do you have enough information? Is there a clearer way to organize your material? Have you generated enough ideas? Have you given yourself enough time? Is it better to write nothing at all?
If your car won’t start, you don’t say that you have Driver’s Block. You check to see if you have the right key. You check the gas tank. You make sure the battery has a charge. Although writing is more complicated than an automobile, it is still just a set of interlinking systems.
10. The study of grammar isn’t an efficient way to improve your writing.
Per the Oxford handbook of Expert Peformance the skill of writing involves at least five parts:
- General Knowledge
- Subject matter knowledge
- Problem-solving skills
- Language use (syntax, grammar, usage, diction)
- Dealing with the emotional challenges of writing.
All five of these links must be strong for you to write with ease and power. Grammar is a part of a part. Just as it is impossible to make a chain stronger by strengthening a single link, the study of grammar is not sufficient if you want to become a better writer.
11. The static page isn’t a very good way to teach writing.
Writing is misnamed. The real skill of it is rewriting. And it’s almost impossible to learn to rewrite by staring at a page of text soaked in red pen corrections. Rewriting is the highly fluid process of seeing all your possible choices and making the one that fits best with all of the other choices you’ve made or could make. (See how hard that is to explain with static text?)
Luckily, we’re living in the 21st century. So we can do a little better than the static page. I call it Co-Writing.
The knack of cutting, tightening and polishing can only be learned through practice. Being able to watch someone do it well (the essence of apprenticeship) makes learning to write significantly easier.