Almost everyone in my writing classes believes (maybe in secret) that writing is a task that should not take a lot of time. After all, we all talk easily enough. Why should writing be hard? Writing is hard. It gets better with practice. Practice takes time. Every single thing that is worthwhile takes time and practice. There are no shortcuts.
Not everyone is a great writer. Most people don’t practice enough, but there is also a talent to writing. I was born with that talent. I was not born with a musical talent. I cannot sing. I open my mouth and sad, ugly noises come out. I could get better if I took lessons and practice, but I will never sing with the clarity and style of Aretha Franklin, Adele, or Whitney Houston. No matter how much talent you were born with, practice will make you a better writer.
There are many reasons writing in English is hard. Words that sound similar mean different things, words have shades of meaning, grammar is not easy and certainly not without dozens of exceptions to the hundreds of rules.
There is one step you can practice without too much pain: Don’t write so much. Most first drafts are too long. That’s a good thing, because it is easier to distill, cut, and take out than it is to patch and put back in.
Here are some tips to make your writing easier (with practice.)
- Don’t write and edit at the same time. Your brain hates that. Writing the draft is creative (even if it’s just an
email). Editing is linear and logical. Trying to combine those will make your head pop off, roll on the floor, and pick up pet hair. Don’t do that to your head. Write first. Edit next. Much more effective.
- Cut out dummy subjects. Sentences that start with “it is,” “that was,” and similar phrases don’t tell the reader much. Cut out the dummy subject. Example: It is possible that I can get to the job this afternoon.” It can be shortened to “I think I can get to the job this afternoon.” Or, “I will have this on your desk by 4 p.m.” (If that is true.)
- Avoid empty CYA phrases like, “this email is to let you know. . .” or, “You may remember that . . .” or, “As per our conversation of this morning . . .” They don’t add anything to your communication. They are cover your ass (CYA) phrases that protect you (good luck with that) but don’t make communication more clear. Example: Instead of “As per our conversation this morning in which you requested the report, please find it attached,” you can edit it to say, “Here is the report you asked for this morning.”
Those three changes in how you write will make a big difference in how well you are understood. Try them for a few days and let me know what happens. Don’t plan ahead for disaster, where you look is where you go.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing.