Before we go any further, I want to address what I feel is a very important topic that’s far too easy to overlook or assume.
You are now a writer.
Please pause a moment and read further before you react with “No I’m not! I’m a <fill in the blank>!”
You’re a writer. In fact, you’ve always been one.
It took me a while to come to grips with that realization myself.
If I had to do it over
Some years ago, I posted an article on Ask Leo! entitled “If I Had to Do It All Over Again…” discussing a realization – a lesson learned, if you will – that running Ask Leo! taught me. If I’d had an opportunity to talk to my younger self, I would have said things like “pay attention here, take that class there” and so on.
It was very well received by a wide variety of readers who expressed overwhelming agreement with the importance of what I’d realized.
What was it that I’d realized?
I realized I had become a writer. In fact, I’d always been one.
I realized I wished I’d paid more attention in my English classes. In fact, I wished I’d taken more of them.
I realized my writing skills are”above average” – at least when it comes to translating technology into terms the average user can understand. In fact, my writing, as much as anything, was responsible for my success.
Writing is everywhere
We think about formal writing as encompassing things like business documents, letters, books, online help articles and the like, but in reality, writing is so much more than that.
Be it in email, online “chat”, or even text messaging, I daresay we’re writing more now than ever before.
Even if all you’re doing is leaving a comment on a blog post somewhere, you’re writing.
For such a common activity, it’s surprising – and somewhat sad – how undervalued writing well often is, and how little effort is put into it.
Why writing matters to you
“People judge you by the words you use.”
That’s an advertising quote from a vocabulary building product, and it’s as true today as it was back in the day it was first coined. In fact, I’d say a little more: “People judge you by the words you use … and how you use them.”
You’ve seen it yourself: you stumble on someone’s comment somewhere, and, based on the language and lack of coherent grammar, you believe the author is a prepubescent teenager. But there’s an equally good chance it’s an adult who never learned to write well.
You have a web site, and presumably you have a business, cause, or mission behind it.
That business, cause, or mission will be judged by the words you use.
Yes, I’m advocating that you write, and write regularly, to promote your web site to your audience and search engines. But even if you don’t do that, whatever it is you do write – be it just your About page, emailed correspondence, business proposals, or whatever – will all be judged, and that judgment will reflect back on you and your business, cause, or mission.
And if your writing sounds like a prepubescent teenager, it’s not going to be judged well.
Aids to better writing
So, how do you get better at writing?
The biggest step to getting better at writing is to write. Seriously, the act of creation – particularly if you’re paying attention to not only what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it – will cause you to improve. Exercise your writing muscle and it’ll get stronger. Start by writing stuff you don’t publish, but start writing.
Ironically enough, another great way to get better at writing is reading. Reading well-written work is a surprisingly effective approach to understanding what works and what doesn’t, what sounds right and what sounds, well, stupid.
Yes, there are books on mechanics, of course … things like the Strunk and White classic The Elements of Style, or William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. But even reading for pleasure can be educational if you’re paying attention. Of late, I’ve become enamored with the story telling and writing abilities of Mike Rowe, a U.S. television personality. About as far from tech as you can imagine, yet he regularly writes incredibly well, and serves as an example I aspire to.
Get an editor. I’ve had one for years. My current editor makes me a better writer – both after the fact, by fixing issues, and before, by calling me out on some of those issues, and by advocating for my readers. Even if you just get someone – a friend, a co-worker, a spouse – to review what you’ve written before you publish or hit “Send”, your writing will improve – both in anticipation of their feedback, and in response to it.
Read your writing out loud. This is actually very old advice I’ve backed into accidentally. You’ll notice that here on Ask Leo! For Business, and on Ask Leo! itself, each new article is accompanied by audio narration. Originally that was done as a form of podcast distribution, and for those who preferred to listen rather than read. Even if I didn’t publish the audio, I’d still do it – it’s amazing the things, large and small, you stumble into when what you’re reading doesn’t “feel” right.
Walk away. Separate the act of writing from the act of editing yourself. They are two different tasks, and both benefit from being treated that way.
I’m just skimming the surface, of course. There are many resources and techniques available if you’re truly interested in becoming a better writer.
And, if I may be so bold, I strongly recommend that you become so interested.
So, what if writing just isn’t your thing, will never be your thing, and would I just shut up about writing already?
OK, there are a few alternatives to consider.
There is no substitute for the written word, particularly if you’re a search engine. If you can’t write it, perhaps someone else in your organization can. Perhaps all you need do is edit and approve.
Of late, video and audio are getting a lot of press. Perhaps you’re more comfortable in front of a microphone or camera, though this does bring up a completely different set of things to think about to remain interesting and accessible to your audience. Regardless, get it transcribed and post that transcription; even if no human ever reads it, the search engines will.
You can hire it out. This might be the most costly of the avenues to pursue (honestly, I’d rather you invest in your own skills, as self-sufficiency is one of my unspoken goals here). You can hire someone local, in your field, or even outsource some of the work to freelancers. But pay careful attention to the quality of the results – their work will reflect on you when published.
Getting your word out
The bottom line is simple: in order to get your message out, it needs to be written.
It needs to be written so the search engines have something to find.
It needs to be written well so that the visitors, including those the search engines send you, will give you the respect and attention you deserve (search engines also use this information – in terms of which pages people visit and how long they linger – to gauge how important your pages are in the grand scheme of things).
And it needs to be ongoing, so both visitors and search engines will understand that your site, and your endeavor, whatever it might be, is interesting, vibrant, and current.
Now, go start writing.
P.S.: Every time I write about writing, my writing gets critiqued. That’s fine – I’m not perfect, and I learn something from all the feedback I get. But remember: perfection isn’t the goal here, and neither should a search for perfection prevent you from hitting that “Publish” or “Send” button. Let my rampant imperfection be an example, if it helps. 🙂