Two common writing mistakes – and how to fix them
When I’m coaching others on business-writing, two topics almost always come up early on. They are, in my experience, the two most common writing mistakes – and they’re nothing to do with the writing itself.
The first mistake is that, when faced with a writing task, most people immediately sit down and begin writing. They fire up Word (or whatever) and immediately start tapping away.
The second is that most people spend little time reviewing and editing their work: usually, a single read-through for spelling mistakes is the order of the day.
(I’m not talking about writing ephemera, such as e-mails, but rather things which are created to deliver a specific sales or marketing outcome – such as a blog, proposal, article, white paper and so on.)
Writing on autopilot can get the job done but, when doing so, writers typically step-stone from one idea to the next; the idea for a subsequent topic is suggested, on the hoof, by the preceding one. It’s progress with some direction, but without objective: key points may be omitted; opposing arguments not considered. As a result, the writing may well fail to do the expected job.
It often seems to me that the way in which we think about writing sets up business-writers to fail. We see the work as the writing. Planning is not writing, therefore when planning a piece, you’re not yet working on it. Editing is not writing, it’s ‘fixing’ something that’s flawed.
More successful writing begins before the first tap on the keyboard and ends way after the first draft is finished.
To address both points, avoid writing on autopilot. Begin work away from the keyboard, where anything you type begs to be part of the finished piece. (Not only that, once the words flow, they can be a distraction in themselves – a trail of breadcrumbs which entice you away from your central theme.)
There are many ways to plan. Some writers like the ‘who, why, what, where, how’ structure. It may not be perfect, but at least it challenges you to ask questions.
Some like to think in almost novelistic terms: who or what is the villain? (In business writing, ‘the villain’ is usually ‘the challenge’.) Who is the hero, and why? Who does the hero save, and how? An example of this might be a press release for a new product; a new product which saves people time. The villain is the old way of working; the hero is your company. The why is not because ‘you created it’ but what you did that was different when creating it. Your company is the hero, saving your customers’ time.
Consider carefully the goals of the piece, and what information is needed to meet those goals. Drive towards the goals; completion of the writing task is not the goal.
Next, revision. Pretty much all professional writers revise, or pay someone to revise, their work, so don’t feel you’re in any way inferior by doing the same. My rule of thumb is that revisions and subsequent drafts can be up to 50% of the ‘writing’ time. Sounds excessive? Well, knowing that you have a couple (or more) writing drafts means you can comfortably, and without risk, write a sloppy first draft – where it’s more important to get ideas down quickly than it is to polish them. On a blog post, you might do a couple of revisions; on a white paper, twice that. The book I’m currently writing is in its fourth revision – and probably two or three more away from it being ready for the editor.
When editing, print off the draft and walk away from the computer. Get a red pen and embrace it as your friend. Look for alternative ways to say things. Cut repetition and kill anything that doesn’t support your goals (I try to lose 10% in each draft). Remove posturing language.
Let go of the notions that only writing itself is work, and that anything which needs to be changed is a mistake. It’s like sculpture: you’re just chipping away until it’s done – first big chunks, then small ones, then tiny ones, before the final polish.
Think of it like this. Planning is working out what to say. Writing is getting those ideas down into words. Editing is reducing it in size, making sure it communicates clearly, does its job well and is as free of errors as possible. It’s all part of the writing process.
Your writing cannot fail to improve as a result of working in this way.