Recently, I caught up with a pal who teaches a writing course to students at a local college. We were discussing whether the ability to write well is innate or if it has to be learned. We agreed that the answer lies somewhere between the two – some people have the natural ability to express themselves succinctly and elegantly, others need to be taught. I’m sure that maturity plays a role too.
Still, I am regularly frustrated when I read any written communication that is flowery, overly formal, or just plain lazy. By lazy, I mean grabbing the first word that comes to mind, rather than tapping into the brain’s vast vocabulary to extract “le mot juste” to perfectly express your intent.
To quote my friend, what writers need to apply is “the economy of words.” She describes this as the ability to use only the precise words needed.
This made me think more about the mindset I deploy as I write. The truth is that you don’t need to have formally studied the English language or have been trained in journalism and AP Style to be an effective writer. I wasn’t. Of course, when you work in the communications industry, you need to learn and practise the basics. If you are struggling to apply “the economy of words” to transform your writing from static words into prose that engages the minds, emotions and actions of your readers, maybe these rather unexpected tips could help.
Read – A client once paid me the biggest compliment: he said my writing showed that I was “well read.” These days, I don’t get to consume much fiction, but I do feed my mental lexicon by snacking on articles online or via mobile apps such as Zite and Flipboard. Often, the words I read linger in my mind until I can find a natural place to apply them in my writing. Play – Yes, play! Scrabble. Boggle. Crosswords. Words with Friends. Hangman. In fact, any game that forces you to tap into your semantic vault. Surprise yourself with the expansiveness of your vocabulary. Challenge yourself to remember new words and use them in your next writing project. Sing – Think of your sentences as lyrics. Does each have its own cadence and rhythm? Or are they staccato, brittle, monotone? Apply musicality to your writing, mix up the tonality and it’ll be more pleasurable to read and digest. Voice – Imagine you are recounting a story or making a verbal case for something. Then write that way. Like a human. Like yourself! No one wants to read bland, dry, stilted words. Even the dullest white paper can be enjoyed if you can sense the person behind the words. Don’t think too much – Counter intuitive, I know, but I find that if you obsess too much about every single word as you write, the outcome is always clumsy. Instead, just write. Then put yourself into the reader’s shoes and read it back. Does it provide all the facts? Answer all potential questions? Does it flow? Does it make you think and react? Cut, cut, cut – Step back from what you’ve written. Can you cut, combine or substitute words to make the prose tighter? Is every word really necessary?
I know at this very moment you are looking back over this post to find opportunities to edit me. Believe me, I overanalyzed and agonized over every word! But there is always room for improvement. Let me know what you would have changed.