All day long I hear excuses for why people’s writing is worse than it ought to be. “But my company insists we write it this way.” “But I don’t have time.” “But I learned to write this way.”
Don’t be a “but-head.” Leave your excuses behind. Here’s a handy guide on how to get past the buts that are stopping you.
But my company requires bad writing . . .
Nobody actually says this, but they say something like it. “We have to write in the passive voice.” “We have to use the company jargon.” “We have to pad our writing out to be too long.”
If this is your company, I recommend a two-pronged strategy:
- Write well, anyway. Scientific writing is typically full of passive voice and twisted syntax, for example. But it still can be better. You may not be able to write in the first person, but that doesn’t stop you from reducing the weasel words, using heading and graphics, and pursuing clarity. Writing clearly with one hand tied behind your back is harder, but it’s no reason to give up.
- Change the policy. Figure out what’s between you and clear writing. Figure out why the company insists on this policy. And then change it. Gather allies, cite articles, conduct A/B tests, and prove to your management that they’d be better off ditching the senseless rule. If you need backup from me, cite my blog posts on writing shorter, passive voice, weasel words, and jargon.
But I don’t have time to write better
It’s true that, at first, redrafting and rewriting weak prose takes time. But in the long run, once you train yourself, you’ll write shorter and more powerful prose in the first draft.
Don’t start by rewriting that 12-page report. Start with something shorter and more tractable, like an information sheet or an email to staff. Rewriting that a few times won’t seem so onerous , but it will train you to spot some of the problems that are getting in your way.
Move on to a single long document. Don’t fix all of the white papers. Pick one and fix it. Pick one where putting in a little extra time will pay off — a document that’s important to people.
Once you’ve gotten that right, you’re on your way to writing everything better.
But my boss doesn’t understand why it’s important
Your boss understands the people you’re writing for: customers or internal readers, most likely.
Gather information about what’s important to them. Do a survey. Conduct informal interviews. Get facts and quotes.
Use the evidence to try it your way, instead of their way, once or twice. And carefully gauge the reaction.
Then you’ll have the evidence you need to do it right.
If you need more help with this, submit a question that includes both your boss’s perspective and your own to Ask Dr. Wobs.
But I don’t know how to begin
Writing well is hard to just do. You need some feedback and coaching.
If you have access to an experienced editor, work with them on a project. You’ll learn things that go way beyond that project.
If you can’t get an editor’s time, form a group with other writers. You might get together with other people in your department, go across departments, or recruit similar people from an industry guild or group.
The key is to get feedback on what you’re writing. You’ll also learn from critiquing others.
If nobody else is looking critically at your writing, it won’t improve. Stop making excuses and find a critic.
But I’ve always written this way
You know what? That’s a lame excuse.
Anyone can get better, but it does require change.
Getting feedback will help you to understand why you write the way you do. Then you can leave those outdated habits behind.
Or just stay the same. It’s your choice. Just recognize that doing nothing is a choice, too.