I’ve been thinking lately about the process of learning how to write. I’m particularly interested in how people learn to write workplace documents.
In workplaces, I frequently encounter a type of ‘learned helplesness’ – where people don’t know how to go about writing, don’t feel confident in their writing abilities, and don’t feel that they can learn anything useful. There’s also often a feeling that what they write doesn’t actually matter, because supervisors and approvers will change it beyond recognition before the work is complete.
I’m convinced that people can learn to write well – with practice and conscious attention to the writing process. I’m also convinced that people who write well experience fewer changes during the approval process.
I think that good writing is invisible: it’s writing that readers don’t notice. When we read good writing, we understand the content without getting caught up in the way that the message was constructed. We understand the key message and easily follow the argument.
But creating good writing is far from simple. It’s hard work. And the invisibility of good writing can mean that it’s difficult to identify and reflect on writing exemplars.
I’ve been scouring the creative writing literature in recent months, to see whether it contains lessons that are relevant for workplace writers. It does. Lots of them. Some of my favourite books are Dorothea Brande’s ‘Becoming a writer’, Stephen King’s ‘On writing’, Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing down the bones’, and of course Annie Lamott’s ‘Bird by bird’. These books are crammed with useful ideas about how writers can develop their craft.
Drawing on these books, I’ve come up with a three step approach to becoming a confident workplace writer. I think that workplace writers who want to improve their writing skills and develop their writing confidence need to focus on three tasks:
- Read like a writer (read widely, and particularly read examples of the work that you have to produce; read things twice – once for content and once for writing style; interrogate successes and failures in the material that you read; look for structural and sentence patterns that you can imitate and learn from).
- Write like an adventurer (write a lot; practise writing at every opportunity; lock up your inner editor while you craft the early drafts; write shitty first drafts – a concept wonderfully explained by Lamott; write to explore what you want to say and what you know about a topic).
- Edit like a reader (edit with your ‘ideal’ reader in mind; imagine readers asking you questions about what you mean and why something is important; imagine readers asking ‘so what?’; make editing a conscious, cyclical process that constantly focuses on what the reader needs from your key message, content, structure, paragraphing, sentence construction, tone, and so on; think about why you make changes and make sure that you can explain why each change will improve the document from the perspective of readers).
Together, these three ideas can help workplace writers to improve their writing skills and become confident about their writing ability. The ultimate goal is to write a successful document for any writing context – on time, every time.