Writing is hard. Writing well is even harder.
We know bad writing when we see it — but what defines good writing? For the purposes of this short blog post, the best writers are those who succeed in communicating the point they set out to make.
Your goal as a better writer, then, should be to know what you’re trying to say then take pains to say it as clearly as possible.
This standard applies to all different genres of writing: from emails for work to academic writing to personal communications. To the extent that you can bring in your unique voice, that’s great; it can make your writing more memorable and impactful. But for the sake of simplicity, we’re interested less in developing your writing style than in delivering a first draft that’s as polished as it can be.
Make no mistake: writing is hard work. But it’s incredibly rewarding to know that your thoughts and feelings live on even after you’ve expressed them — for others to discover, learn from, appreciate, and enjoy.
Get to the point.
“It behooves us to avoid archaisms,” presidential speechwriter William Safire once said. “Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.”
being facetious joking around, but there’s more than a grain of truth to his suggestion. When you’re writing, you’re doing so for an entire universe of people who may one day read what you put down in print. They won’t care that you have a big vocabulary or use fancy words to sound erudite. They will care about the point you’re trying to make, and how well you make it.
Wordy writing is an especially big problem in business (where people want to sound authoritative) and in the tech world (where left-brain thinking dominates). But brevity really matters at work — because people are pressed for time and, quite frankly, tend to skim messages rather than read them in-depth. Here, unnecessary words can actually work against the point you’re trying to make if they cause you to lose the reader’s attention.
Before you put pen to paper, you should identify what core message you want to communicate. Then, all of your writing — from your topic sentences to your examples to your quotations — can roll up to this main message. You can also edit your work with an eye to expressing the main points of your message more clearly.
Have a handful of sentences do the heavy lifting.
In communicating your core message, you’ll use relatively few sentences to make your essential “arguments.” Conventionally, these are called topic sentences.
You may remember from elementary school that every paragraph should open with a topic sentence. If you’re aiming to deliver a message, this is still good advice. Your paragraph opens are your best opportunity to make a point, which the rest of the sentences in the paragraph then support.
Jane Rosenzweig, the director of the Harvard Writing Center, advises using your topic sentences to make a claim instead of merely stating a fact. These claims can then be expanded upon within the paragraph that follows.
“When you begin a paragraph with a claim, you teach readers what to expect — and you remind yourself what the rest of the paragraph should deliver,” she says.
Rosenzweig gives these alternating examples of good and not-so-good topic sentences:
Descriptive topic sentence: I met with the client on Thursday.
Claim topic sentence: After meeting with the client on Thursday, I recommend rethinking our pitch.
Another great example of this in real life is, surprisingly, the ChatGPT AI bot. If you ask ChatGPT a question, it will reply in a kind of essay format. The first lines of each new paragraph support the overall claim being made, with specifics provided after this single sentence. Here’s an example:
Prompt: Why are B vitamins important for health?
Answer: One of the key reasons B vitamins are important for health is their role in energy production. B vitamins such as B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), and B6 (pyridoxine) are integral components of enzymes that convert the food we eat into energy. They are essential for the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Write for newbies and experts simultaneously.
In writing to communicate a message, what you’re trying to say is only part of the equation. Who you’re writing for is just as important.
Your audience determines the tone of your writing, the examples you deploy to illustrate your points, and even the language you use. When you’re writing for an audience of experts, you’ll use jargon, acronyms, and technical terms you wouldn’t want to put in front of a beginner.
One compelling piece of advice is to try writing for both kinds of person simultaneously. How do you do this, given the knowledge that experts possess? Won’t beginner-level content bore them?
An effective way to reach multiple audiences is by tapping in to your topic sentences. They’re your most powerful tool for making a point.
Your topic sentences should make claims that any reader can understand. The rest of each paragraph can then be devoted to explaining why the claim is true in a more technical way.
Of course, writing for experts may require you to have expert-level knowledge yourself. But the test of a true subject matter expert is how well they can distill their knowledge into something approachable. For examples of how to do this, look to WIRED magazine’s “5 Levels” series on YouTube.
If you’re writing to write, be disciplined.
A common refrain among authors, professional editors, and successful writers is to think of writing as a job.
That is, you should devote a certain amount of time to your writing each day. Set a daily writing goal (i.e., a specific word count target) and stick to it. Block off time in your calendar to limit distractions. And start each day with a blank page — this time is for writing, not editing.
The key is to create a cadence of writing on a regular basis: to put yourself on a kind of autopilot. Haruki Murakami described in 2004 how he writes early in the day for 5 or 6 hours, then devotes the rest of the day to exercise, reading, and other leisure pursuits.
“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind,” he told the Paris Review.
Five or six hours is a general rule among many authors, but it’s by no means the only way to get writing done. Famed director Francis Ford Coppola’s advice is to pick a number of words that you can actually accomplish.
“Every day meet that goal. When you have, stop. Switch to some other task and do not go back to what you’ve just written that day,” he is quoted as saying by the New York Public Library.
There are countless guides to developing your own writing — this blog is just an overview of some of the basic rules of what separates great writers from bad writers. In any piece of writing you create, though, your objective as a good writer should be to have an objective. Only when you know what you’re trying to say can you hold yourself accountable to how well you say it.
Photo by Kateryna Hliznitsova on Unsplash.