I was at a trade show last week, talking to a federal employee who, upon learning that I am a word nerd, asked me how he could go about writing better. “I’ve taken classes,” he said, “and I feel like I’ve got the grammar thing under control, but no matter what I do, my supervisor always has edits to what I write. How do I write so that my supervisor doesn’t change what I’ve written?”
There are several issues at hand. First, his supervisor’s edits are distressing because he’s taking them personally. As previously opined, writing is a vulnerable act and to have someone suggest changes often feels like you’re being told that your thinking isn’t good enough. It isn’t so much that an edit is a comment on your thinking as it is that, if someone else is going to sign the document, they have to feel like it is their own. One official I wrote for used the term “moreover” a lot. It was his verbal tic and so we knew we might as well drop the term in at the outset rather than waiting for him to work it in to the text at some later point. When you write for someone else to sign, you just have to get comfortable with the idea that they are going to want to make it their own.
Second, we are all served by keeping the 5-paragraph essay structure in mind. Even if you modify it for longer or shorter documents, it never hurts to tell the audience what you are going to tell them, substantiate your conclusion with evidence, then conclude by telling the audience what you told them and why. Repetitive, perhaps, but you’re going to have a structured document that makes people think that your synapses are incredibly organized and logical.
Next, I brought up that wonderfully reassuring Earnest Hemingway quote – all first drafts are shit. Good writing isn’t in the first draft, it is in your commitment to the second, third, fourth and fifth draft. Good writing is about relentless rewriting. Setting the piece aside, looking at it again a day later, rewriting, reading as your audience might and editing accordingly.
The fourth consideration I offered was to spend time getting inside your audience’s head. You write differently for Congress than you do for your mother. Know your audience and proceed accordingly.
Finally, and I didn’t think to bring this up over the course of our conversation, it might help to relax into it a little bit. Often when we want to write really well, or we want to leave a distinctive impression with our writing, we try too hard and end up with stilted, unnaturally formal prose. Let your writing reflect the ease of your face-to-face interactions. Yes, you’ll cut out the “ums,” “ers,” and “you know’s” that often clutter oral communication, and yes, you’ll use full sentences instead of the fragments we often speak in. But most of us don’t use $10 words when we talk to our colleagues over the phone, yet we tend to want to use them when we’re writing. Use the right word, but don’t give in to the urge to impress by using every big word you know. Have fun and play – they are only words and they can be rearranged endlessly, all until you press “send.”