3 things aspiring writers must know

After a career as a writer, the author conveys basic truths about the craft—along with ways to hone your linguistic abilities, regardless of your profession.

This week, I am speaking to a college class. A friend who teaches business communication wants a “real, live” writer to speak to make the point that writing well is important. I will also be Exhibit A that someone can indeed make a living with her words and her wits.

It’s been a while since I taught (which I really enjoy), but not that long since I’ve worked with young people and colleagues on developing their writing skills.

Still, I’m a worried about holding the class’s attention, especially because it doesn’t start until 8:15 p.m.

Will they be awake? Will I put them (or myself) to sleep?

Here’s the gist of my remarks. Let me know what you think. Fellow writers and educators, am I on or off the mark? Is there anything big I’ve omitted?

Here goes:

I’m here in your classroom—instead of watching “How I Met Your Mother”—because there are three points I want to convey about writing and the world of work.

  1. Writing can be fun.
  2. Writing is hard.
  3. Writing can make you popular.

Writing can be fun. You can be creative. Though you might not think a memo can be creative, a well-crafted memo that is clear, uses relevant examples, and leads the reader to the point you want to make is creative writing.

Other forms of business writing—such as press releases, blog posts, articles, presentations, and speeches—allow for even more creative freedom with themes, metaphors, use of language, and much more. Writing well also involves deciding what to put in and what to leave out. Often I’ve had great lines—clever and with great imagery—but I left them out because they didn’t support the main idea or they interrupted the flow.

Business writing can also be fun because of the places you will go and the people you will meet. My career of writing speeches, running magazines, and putting together financial presentations, among other assignments, got me to some amazing places, including the White House; a London interview with the head of British Airways, Sir Colin Marshall (travel courtesy of the Concorde); and the back seat of a limousine for a four-block meeting with the U.S. transportation secretary.

As a business writer, you might write for smart and influential people. I’ve written for CEOs and heads of government agencies. When you’re writing for leaders like this, the pressure can be intense, but you can also get a seat at the table when strategy is being discussed and developed. And what is written-your words-could become policy.

Now, that is really fun.

What’s even more gratifying is the difference your words can make. As one colleague used to say to me, “Words mean things.” Yes, they do, and words can often make a life-or-death difference.

At my last stop before retirement, I wrote for National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman. My words helped promote measures to address key safety issues, such as distracted driving and alcohol-impaired driving, which are responsible for killing thousands of people every each year.

As a ghost writer, I drafted op-ed articles on these topics for major newspapers. And, yes, it’s a big kick to see your words in print. More important, these opinion articles about how to address thousands of annual traffic fatalities may have helped save lives.

To my second point, writing can be hard.

Yet, we all know that lots of things are hard.

Right now, I am trying to learn to knit. Though I have a great teacher, I cannot begin to think that I can make a scarf or a sweater, much less any of the other fantastic things on display at the yarn shop.

Is that how you feel about writing? It is work.

Let me share some tips that I’ve picked up along the way on how to make writing well less difficult. I won’t say easy, because good writing is not easy.

1. Structure is paramount. When it’s done well, the writing will flow. I surely learned this the hard way. In fifth grade we were told to write a book report. A half-century later it still feels traumatic. Having no idea how to do the assignment, I filled countless index cards. I think I recopied the entire book.

Today, I outline. My children were taught the writer’s web. What do you use?

If I’m really stuck, I write down all the key points I’ve learned about a topic; then I back into an outline.

However you do it—outline, writer’s web, or some other method—it’s important to have a logical structure with a well-stated theme and then make the case for it with vivid examples and facts. (Caution: Don’t use too many facts, or you’ll lose your readers.)

It can help to start the outline with your conclusion and then go back to the beginning to work up to it.

2. Just start writing. Anything.

Writer John McPhee says his trick is to type “Dear Mother.” That takes care of the blank page. Then, you just keep going. Also, stop for the day before you run out of gas or ideas. That makes it easier to get started the next time.

3. Read good writing. When my older daughter was in second grade, her teacher cringed that she was reading the Baby-Sitters Club books. Mrs. Bonner said the books were “bubblegum for the brain.” OK, I agree.

If you want to write well, read good writing, such as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, and read well-edited magazines and books by acclaimed authors. You’ll get to where you recognize good writing and maybe even to where you prefer it.

Reading good writing also helps with grammar. I read The New Yorker magazine. It is well edited, and I know the grammar and punctuation will be correct. There are also good reference books. My favorite is The Elements of Style.

4. Do your research; know your topic. I call the final product the “tip of the iceberg.” The article or speech is what everyone sees but I know it takes reading, interviewing, outlining, writing, fact checking, and approvals. Accuracy is so important to your credibility and to the credibility of your boss and your organization.

5. Rewrite and edit ruthlessly.

One high school English teacher said nothing would be good if it went through fewer than five drafts. She was right. Many times I’ve gone much higher than five drafts.

I was lucky with high school teachers. Another one had us write an essay every day. So, 180 school days meant 180 essays. Practice may not make you perfect, but like any other activity, practice makes you better.

Writing will get easier the more you do it and the harder you work at it. I’m hoping the same is true for knitting.

Now, to my third and final point: Writing well can make you popular.

If you are a good writer, you will have more friends—who will want your help with resumes, job applications, letters, and a host of assignments.

I have helped co-workers with all of these. This assistance has gotten me coffee, lunches, adult beverages, and fancy dinners.

More than popularity, the ability to write well makes you an authority. If you can articulate an idea-state it clearly-and present a well-reasoned and logical case for the idea and its implementation, then you must know what you are talking about.

You will also be someone who can be a valuable member of a team or a department or an organization.

That value, in turn, makes you more employable and more promotable.

I’ve seen too few people in my 40 years of work who can write well. If you can, that can only help your career, whatever you choose to do.

OK, it’s 2014. The world is swarming with new media. Yet even with texts and tweets, business and the world of work require well-thought-out plans and strategies and marketing programs. These all start with ideas, which need words and order and logic to explain them, share them, and support their adoption.

If you can write well, then your organization—and you—will be more successful.

Years from now you may thank your teacher, just as I wrote to Mr. Johnson 20 years after high school and thanked him for those daily essays. They were hard, but they gave me a craft and a career.

Now, if I could only learn to knit.

A version of this article first appeared on Retirement and Relocation.


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