Thought Leadership

STUCK!

6 HACKS TO STRENGTHEN YOUR WRITING

Sadaf Ferdowsi
Junior Strategist & Copywriter

December 2, 2020

As if suddenly working from home while fearing a global health crisis wasn’t enough, nearly a third of the nation’s workforce began experiencing an added stress: writing, and writing more often, and writing for occasions unusual for them. Posing a quick question at a co-worker’s desk migrated to chatting online. Instructions given in face-to-face meetings were typed into emails. Video calls made it clear that everyone, regardless of job title, wrote notes to stay organized. The written word is by no means a novel invention, but the rise in remote and asynchronous work has revived its importance. Just as we have incorporated Slack, Teams, and other apps into our daily lives, we must also invest in our writing craft to bolster communication and productivity. While these six tips are written with workplace communications in mind, they are general enough to apply to social media, copywriting, and creative writing as well. Enjoy!

 #1. Keep readers reading with verbs. 

Readers are everywhere. They read your social media posts and packaging, pitch decks and company policies, but rarely do they read anything all the way to the end. Composition scholars Joseph M. Williams and Lawrence McEnerney were interested in discovering why readers so often abandon writing and stumbled across some unexpected research: cognitively, readers and writers live in two different worlds. While writers need nouns to understand their thinking, readers rely on verbs to keep them motivated. We store ideas as nouns in our brains, so unrevised writing is often dominated by them as we figure out our thinking. Conversely, readers seek action and movement. Recall the last time you read an email in a hurry. You probably skimmed for verbs, trying to piece together what to do and by when. If you couldn’t identify these actions quickly enough, it’s likely you gave up reading. Consequently, writers can resolve this tension by revising nouns into verbs whenever possible.

#2. Don’t think of writing as “the words,” think in terms of “narrative space.”

The format of your writing is just as important as the words you choose. For example, social media posts or newsletter templates have particular restraints that are different from articles or screenplays. These differences in form create a narrative space that writers must respect to build cohesive stories. This is why copywriters may hesitate to start writing until they can see a particular design in full because they must ensure their copy aligns with the images, charts, or other text within that narrative space. When it comes to the workplace, consider the narrative spaces in emails, policies, or chats to inspire your word choice and organization. For example, I write emails in bullet point lists because they are easier to read on smartphone screens. If you think in terms of narrative space, everyone wins.

#3. Confront procrastination with curiosity, not guilt.

 While we have our unique tactics for procrastination (mine include watching cartoons and housecleaning), feeling guilt or shame when we put off writing is universal. Writer Megan McArdle distilled the growing scholarship on procrastination and outlined its two root causes: (1) not understanding expectations and (2) fearing failure. As a result, the first step to newfound confidence is identifying the origins of your procrastination without judgment. You’ll be surprised to discover it’s not a lack of intelligence or talent, but rather, a lack of information or planning. For example, once you realize you aren’t writing because you don’t understand the instructions, you can compile a list of questions. Funnily enough, when you ask for help, conduct more research or organize your project into smaller goals, you “un-freeze” yourself from procrastination sometimes without noticing you’re putting words on the page. By replacing the negative and energy-draining emotions like guilt, shame, or stress with a more positive and curious approach, you can overcome procrastination while also unlocking creative solutions.

Did you know? 

People spend an average of 17 hours per week reading, responding, and sending work emails.

Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “Rethinking the Role of Internal Communications.” – North America State of the Sector, November 2018

#4. “Read, read, read…

Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out.” This William Faulkner quote appears in nearly every book or blog on writing and for good reason. It’s a misconception that only certain people can become writers or only certain works are worth reading. Anyone can be a writer and anything you read can strengthen your skillset. The secret is to actively monitor and follow your attention as you read. Whether you’re reading LinkedIn articles, book reviews, or blog posts, Netflix blurbs, ketchup labels, or skincare bottles, identify where the writing pulls you in and when it starts to bore you. What compels you to roll your eyes? What words or phrases continually resonate with you? Anytime something grabs (or loses) your attention is an opportunity to learn your craft.

#5. Remember craft is a mixture of work and play.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, political philosopher Michel de Certeau discusses the idea of “la perruque,” which is the word for wig in French. Inspired by the hardworking wigmakers in France, “la perruque” is an expression that pertains to all the small practices we do for ourselves, the little things that help us “make do” with the subjugations of everyday life. Despite long working hours and a demanding profession, the wigmakers of France stayed long after their shops closed and would design wigs from leftover scraps and materials. In this way, they approached their craft not only from the perspective of work and profit, but also to express individual creativity and create something for themselves. Like wig-making, writing will leave behind many scraps. Encourage yourself to collect and re-arrange your discarded prose, or experiment with different forms. Alas, there are no hacks to writing as the title falsely advertised. Good writing requires an ethic devoted to both work and play.

#6. Write with two goals in mind: narrative probability and narrative fidelity.

Walter Fisher forever altered the communications field when he introduced the theory of the narrative paradigm. This theory posits that humans developed language because we are innate storytellers and, as a result, respond more intuitively to narrative structures or storytelling elements. Two of these elements include narrative probability and narrative fidelity. Narrative probability refers to the sequential order of events. Does the language follow a coherent cause-and-effect pattern or are the sentences jumbled? Alternatively, narrative fidelity pertains to the faithfulness of a story as a whole. For example, a sci-fi novel suddenly turning into a Shakespearian sonnet breaks fidelity in the way Starbucks coffee in bright orange-and-pink packaging would cause a stir. These stories would no longer “ring true” to the audience because of the abrupt shift in voice and tone. Whenever you feel stuck in any piece of writing, read aloud, retype, or handwrite your work. Almost immediately you will find the ruptures in narrative probability and narrative fidelity. Then, revise your work to ensure your sentences flow in a clear and logical order while also eliminating inconsistencies in voice, tense, and tone.

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