5 Popular Writing Tips That Could Blow Up In Your Face

There's a lot of writing advice out there, but I've noticed some asterisks missing. Allow me to provide those now:

Practice writing every day
That's not practical, necessarily (unless you've got my job). Deliberate practice is better than just sheer repetition. If you spend time on practice, you have to use it pretty damn well, especially if you're busy.

But what constitutes "good practice"? I'll be covering this in another post later, but the basic idea is to approach improving your writing with a problem-solving mindset. You may need to bring in other perspectives. Some of the fundamentals of deliberate practice include:

  • revision: literally re-view your writing. You CAN'T do this by looking at your work in the same format in which you wrote it. Email, for example: Paste it into Word or print it up to look it over before hitting SEND. You'll be amazed at the mistakes and problems you missed that suddenly seem obvious when viewed in a different format. Every blog post I write gets pasted into Notepad and given the twice-over before I dare to publish it.

  • peer feedback: Grab a colleague, preferably one who isn't your best friend so they won't pat you on the head, and have them look over what you've written. If it's something longer, make sure you're not abusing their time. If it will take more than a few minutes of their time, it might be worth treating them to lunch. You might even consider hiring someone like me to have a look. 

  • use your imagination: picture yourself as your intended reader. Does this document work for you? This critical perspective could prompt drastic, but important revisions. 

Less is more
Don't get me wrong. I love a succinct, to-the-point sentence as much as anyone. I've long been an evangelist for this philosophy. But like anything, it is possible to be a fanatic about this. Get to the point, but make sure you're saying everything that needs to be said.

I have a client who was raised by a military dad. This client's clipped, laconic emails were getting him into trouble at work. Not only was his style not a fit in the company culture, his people didn't even have enough information or motivation to act on what he was asking from them.

It turns out that when you're working with people, it's necessary to provide some context in your communications with them. Your reader needs to know what you want them to do, yes. But they also need to know the why. Everyone wants to feel empowered, part of the team, part of a story where they get to be treated like a hero, not a sidekick.

Keeping the reader in mind is about more than a face and their name: it's about their purpose, their story. Write them into a story where you get what you need from them (productivity, favors, etc) because you've given them what they want: a good reason.

Always use active voice
Again, this is more of a guideline than an actual rule. Sure, an active sentence: "Jenny was sexually harassed yesterday" has less impact than an active sentence: "Kevin, Jenny's boss, sexually harassed her yesterday." But there really is a place for passive voice.

It all comes down to emphasis. What if, in our example, we needed to avoid mentioning Kevin for moral or ethical reasons without implying that Jenny is lying about the incident? What if what we're after is to generate sympathy for Jenny rather than rancor for Kevin? In these instances, passive voice is the best choice.

Sure, keeping to a Subject-Verb-Object structure is usually the best way to go when you're trying to get things done. It isn't always. Our language beautifully deploys complex structures to draw people together. But being careless with it because, rules, can do the opposite.

Is this kind of subtlety and sensitivity too much work? Hire me. I've got this.

Use your spell check
Before you publish, sure. It's one more arrow in your quiver.

But it's not your friend. It passes over correctly spelled homophones without remorse or pity. It won't catch, for instance, that you've used the wrong form of their (they're, there, etc), or if you wrote "compliment" but meant "complement".

Also, those little red squiggles can be a considerable distraction when you're drilling through draft one, your work flow being constantly interrupted by games of spell check whack-a-mole.

Use templates
Oooh. Be careful with this one. Templates can be so convenient, particularly in a customer service setting. When you're saying basically the same thing to multiple people several times a day, it can make sense.

But even a little mistake with one of these can be fatal, especially if there's no way for the template to auto-populate. It's so easy to get a personal name or company name wrong, and that can be worse than sending nothing at all. This kind of mistake can make the receiving party so deeply uncomfortable that this small gaffe can permanently damage relationships. Is it worth it? Use templates sparingly and with extreme caution.


Thomas G.

Passing on the Power of Language: English, Writing, Humanities

300+ hours
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