On Writing: You’re Now A Writer

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.

Other aids?

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.

Alternatives

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. 🙂

9 comments on “On Writing: You’re Now A Writer”

  1. Leo, I was a writing teacher in my earlier life (with a Ph.D level education in English). I mention this only to add a little weight to my compliments to you for your excellent writing skills, specifically for the particular style of writing you do for your intended audience. I have often wondered how you learned to write that well, and now I know! You’re right–“practice makes perfect” (or close to it at least) really does apply to writing, as well as simply paying attention to how other good writers write. Specifically you write simply (not ‘simplistically’). Your explanations are well thought through and logically presented. Your ‘voice’ is authentic and conversational. Your paragraphs are short, often only one sentence, which wouldn’t always be good for some other types of writing, but I think it’s very effective for technical explanation on the internet. Your sentence structure and grammar are great (compliments also to your editor).

    OK, I have to add at least one criticism–though I’m not sure it’s your fault as I think sometimes (such as on Facebook, I think) it’s not possible to do this–but there should be two spaces between sentences instead of just one. It makes reading easier. (I’ve put two spaces between my sentences here so we’ll see after I publish my comment if they get reduced to one space.)

    (If I have made any typos, etc. here, remember this site doesn’t allow edits in comments–another one of my pet peeves. 🙂 )

    Have a great day!

    • Two spaces between sentences is actually old school guidelines, from the typewriter days. I had a hard time adjusting to the new guidelines as well, but finally gave in. Today good practice is to have only have one space. It’s because of the method computers use to space letters. In most fonts each letter does not take the same width, and very often the spacing for each sentence is adjusted line per line as text wraps through a paragraph. Two spaces before the beginning of a sentence will usually be removed by the composition software.

      • One space seems to be becoming ‘accepted’ practice but I would personally hesitate to call anything ‘good’ practice that truly does make reading/comprehending more difficult. One needs a clear visual cue indicating when one thought has ended and another begins. I wonder if the dropping of the second space has ‘subconsciously’ contributed to the making of more one-sentence paragraphs. On my own WordPress site I go in and I sometimes add back the second spaces that the WP program strips out of my word processing program text when I copy it over. I am very glad to have done it every time I go back and read my articles.

        On the other hand, in other ways programs like WP and so many others (like my backup program) have become so much more user friendly in so many other ways, for which I am immensely grateful. 🙂

        • I, too, am an advocate of two spaces between sentences. Thank you for your post above. You informed of how WP and messaging software whittle it down to one. I’m putting FOUR spaces between my sentences in this post to see what happens when I hit “Post comment.”

          • Since comments are moderated it took a while, but … now I’m curious too. (And I remain a single-space guy. Let the computer do the work appropriate to the display/font/situation 🙂 ).

          • The four spaces are still there. (Do a view page source from your browser, and you’ll see them.) However HTML standards call for removal of excess white space, so don’t see them, because your browser removes the excess. Unless you have access to the unedited HTML and use a “space code” specifically you’ll never see them. Typing the space code in the edit box won’t work because there are all sorts of filters that your text goes through on its travels between keyboard to the database and back to a screen.

            On paper, more text processors will render a single space following a period longer than the spaces between words, an they might even render a period-space-space as a period-long-space.

  2. I think you’re more a teacher than a writer, actually. Unless you understand by writer, everybody who uses written communication. Your aim is to transfer knowledge, and I reckon you’re pretty good at that. Whether the communication channel is direct speech, video, audio or the written word, I think your aim is to teach people some skills (and probably by the same token, to get them potentially interested to buy services from you ?). So you use teaching as a kind of publicity for business, but it is genuine teaching all right, there’s nothing fake about it.

    To me, on the other hand, a writer is someone who writes stories, with characters, a plot and all that. It can be a true story, or it can be an invented story (fiction). The story can convey a message. It can be poetry or it can be prose, it can be theater or it could be a novel. That’s not what you do (unless Leo doesn’t exist, and you’ve made this up as a kind of grand fiction 🙂 ). Who practices the art of literary writing. Someone who might, potentially, hope for the Nobel prize in Literature.

    You are a (very good) communicator with written words (as well as with video and audio). But I think you will never get the Nobel prize in Literature, no matter how brilliant your writings are, but simply because of what you are writing. As such, you are not a writer.

    That doesn’t mean that there are no special skills, special writing styles and so on that apply to written communication in the domain you practice ! On the contrary.
    For this kind of writing, my favorite guide is “How to write”, by Richard Rhodes.

    • My definition is not as limited as yours, but that’s OK. What’s critical here is that everyone realize the importance of the written word in communication – be it plain education, promotion, or engagement, as the kind of websites and email that I’m discussing here are typically all about. By my definition of “writer”, everyone who uses the written word to communicate needs to take that role seriously, and one way to do so is to label yourself a writer.

      Because we are all writers. 🙂 (Nobel not required.)

  3. Thanks, Leo! Apart from the VERY occasional typo (usually a missing small word) your English/writing is excellent and a fine example to others. I refer here to both the grammar and sentence construction, as well as ability to communicate thoughts clearly which goes well beyond the basic mechanics. This is a rare skill these days it seems.

    (Looks like the double space after sentences is automatically reduced to a single space [or 1.5 spaces?], like it or not! I was brought up on the double space method.)

    One thing many people get wrong is joining (short?) sentences together with a comma where a semicolon (;) or dash (—) should be used.

    I guess we have to be a bit tolerant with the large number of migrants we have now in Australia — obviously they’ve done well to learn a new language, but I hope they try doubly hard to improve their English, as the reader doesn’t know whether the author is a migrant or just careless /sloppy with their English and as Leo points out the effect of bad English or punctuation on the reader is very jarring.

    One last thing — I find the (modern?) use of the word “human” as a noun to be very annoying. In such cases it should be “human being”. The word “human” is an adjective. However I see that Wikipedia is now using “human” as a noun so I guess all my old teachers must have been wrong! Perhaps substituting the word person (or people) would keep everyone happy!

    Thanks again, Leo.