Writing at work causes so much stress. So many questions. So much doubt.
Is this comma in the right place? Is that a run-on sentence? Do you need
"who" or "whom"? If you click "send" now, how long until everyone discovers
just how verbally clueless you really are?
Style and accuracy do matter. A single typo can land your message in the
trash bin, and bad grammar can quash your credibility. But the more you
fret and obsess over those details, the more likely you are to kill the
very qualities a writer needs most: confidence and creativity.
So relax a little. Here are four things you can stop worrying about when
1. Stop trying to get it right the first time.
Your first draft doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't even have to be
good. It just needs to be done.
The moment you start analyzing the quality of your writing—second-guessing
and correcting your work—is the moment you switch off your creativity.
You're not writing anymore; you're editing. Editing is an act of judgment,
Editing too soon is premature evaluation. It's invasion of your own
creative space. Don't do it.
Let yourself write a long, rambling mess of ideas. Don't stop until you've
run out of things to say. Once you've exhausted your creative mind, take a
break. Later, you can and should return to the page with a red pen and a
critical eye. Correct spelling, insert commas, reorganize points and make
your message pretty. This is the mission of your second draft (and third,
and fourth and fifth)—never your first.
[RELATED: Learn how to infuse storytelling, simple language and great writing into all your communications at the Business Writing Summit.]
2. Stop composing messages in order.
As long as you're liberating your creativity, free yourself from sequential
order, too. This applies to the way you draft a message and the way you
Opening lines can be the hardest to write. Paralyzing, even. But no one is
insisting that you compose your message in order. If you're stuck on the
introduction, skip it. Start in the middle. Write the ending first. Begin
with whatever comes easiest, so you can build momentum.
Once you have all the pieces on the page, think carefully about what
belongs on top. Suppose your reader spends just 10 seconds looking at your
message. Is your priority to share rationale or make a recommendation? To
explain background or call for action? Spoiler alert: Short attention spans
don't survive dramatic builds and epic chronologies. Make your point fast
and up front.
3. Stop cranking out paragraphs.
Here's what a page full of paragraphs says to the busy reader: "Close the
door and clear your calendar, because I have a lot to say. To decipher this
message, you're going to need time, focus and patience. Brace yourself,
because this reading is work."
The busy reader's likely response? "Maybe later," "No thank you" or "No
If you want to capture and keep attention, ditch your allegiance to the
five-sentence paragraphs of fifth-grade composition (topic sentence, three
supporting sentences, summary sentence). Instead, portion your message into
small pieces the reader can see and consume at a glance:
- Let one powerful sentence—like a call to action—stand alone.
- Give headlines that reveal the gist of your message.
- Organize groups of ideas (features, reasons, advantages, etc.) in
- Outline step-by-step instructions in numbered lists.
Better yet, replace at least some of your words with pictures.
Our brains can process images 60,000 times faster than text, and our
minds are more likely to retain visual than verbal information. That's why kittens and infographics are winning the internet.
4. Stop trusting yourself as editor.
If you're not a confident writer or proofreader, this advice is a
no-brainer. Give yourself—and your reader—the gift of a second set of eyes.
But what if you are a skilled reviewer? You're a champ at spotting flaws in
other people's work. What's more, you're super-proud of what you've
written—confident that your purpose is clear and your logic is flawless.
You, my friend, need an editor. Big time.
Even the most eagle-eyed proofreaders can be blind to their own mistakes.
The most heavenly writing benefits from a devil's advocate.
Pass your message to a friend, a colleague or even a perfect stranger. Have
them read your work and be open to their feedback. Better yet, have them
read your writing out loud to you. While they read:
- Notice how your words flow through their lips. Do they sound as
smooth as they did from that voice inside your head?
- Watch their facial expressions. What words prompt a smirk, a raised
eyebrow or a wrinkled forehead?
- Listen to their hesitations. Does that awkward pause signal an error
in spelling or punctuation, or a flaw in logic?
Stop stressing about perfection, order and paragraphs—and for heaven's
sake, ask for a little help. Letting go of these obsessions makes writing
easier, messages stronger and you saner.
A version of this article originally appeared on the
Spencer Grace blog.