Thoughts on writing and writers
Clear writing doesn’t need to be hard to produce
One of the key things we do in our workshops is show before-and-after examples of documents that we’ve rewritten so the messages are clearer. The contrast between the two is so startling, people often ask us, “How do you doooo that?!” It looks like some form of magic turns one version into the other. We’ll share a secret with you: we are not simplification wizards. It is an achievable skill for anyone interested in learning it.
In this article, we share our thoughts on why it looks like magic, and we’ll give you concrete tools to learn how to get from point A to B yourself. The not-so-magic ‘Abracadabra’ skills include
Applying standard principles
Having the right tools
Not reinventing the wheel
But why does it look like magic? Because of the distance between A and B!
Many workplace documents are currently reproducing an older style of writing. It writes from an internal perspective and focuses on capturing all the information. That’s point A.
But styles are shifting. A book called Proust and the Squid by cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf shows how the Internet has actually changed how our brains work—and the way we digest written information. We are inundated with high volumes of information, so our brains now demand shorter, more focused bites of writing. Did you know? Studies show you have about 8 seconds to capture a reader’s attention before they move on.
Good workplace writing must evolve. It has to adapt to the times and the ways our brains have changed. It’s now essential to be reader and message focused—to ask yourself, “What is the most important thing to say? And have I said it in the fewest, clearest, simplest words possible?” That’s point B.
Getting from point A to B looks like magic simply because there’s quite a distance between the two styles. Producing point‐B writing requires re‐learning what good workplace writing means. Because there is now a different standard of success.
Three easy steps to clearer workplace writing
You can get to point B much more quickly if you do the following three things:
1. Apply standard principles
The good news is there are established, universal plain language principles. So step one is just to apply them. Point B is about focusing on who you are writing for and what you are trying to say. Then writing your messages in a direct, focused way. When you do that, you are already well on your way.
Did you know?
These principles are so established, in fact, that ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) is busy creating a standard for plain language documents. ISO standards are internationally recognized best practices and often become formal regulations—This is the organization that created the standards to quality control how companies make things like medical equipment and your kitchen stove. Their website says, “Think of [a standard] as a formula that describes the best way of doing something.”
That’s why our next self-paced online course Essentials for Clear Workplace Writing teaches to a clear writing standard (coming summer 2021)—we go step by step through the principles you need to apply to your writing so that it stays clear, concise, and effective. We will adapt our material to teach how to apply the ISO plain language standard to workplace writing, once it is released. You can monitor the progress of this standard here.
2. Have the right tools
The second reason the before‐and‐after results look like magic is because you may not yet have the right tools for the job. From our experience, the ‘struggle’ doesn’t come from a lack of ability. It comes from missing the right tools. How can we write the easy way, if no one ever taught us how?
When you do have the right tools, writing is painless (and fun)! No, really! Don’t just take it from us—here are two individuals who experienced this shift:
So pause before you conclude you aren’t very good at clear, effective writing. Ask yourself, “Do I have the tools I need?” Don’t struggle in isolation. Seek out the practical tools and missing information—it exists, we promise! Then try again. Is the experience different this time? We’re willing to bet it will be.
3. Don’t reinvent the wheel
Our last piece of advice is…don’t reproduce work and start from scratch every time you write! Rather, make use of the good thinking that has come before you. Here are a few ideas:
Find good writing and imitate it—You’re a writer, but you’re also a reader. What works for you is not likely to be very different from your own readers. When you come across a piece of writing that was a breeze to get through, or you found yourself fully engaged in, save it! Refer to it the next time you write for inspiration.
Update your templates—Do you write the same kinds of documents often? If so, create a template or update your existing one. If you invest the time into making your template reflect the exact structure, wording, length, and feel you want it to, it streamlines your entire process. We’ve helped many‐a‐client update their templates, and they usually report back that it cuts the time to produce documents in half.
Use free resources—The most exciting one we’ve come across lately is this design pattern library. Think of it as a free library of “thinking templates”. They are easy-to-apply solutions for sticky readability problems that repeat in point‐A writing. The library explains why the solution matters and how it looks in practice. You can build on work already done, apply the same solutions, and be well on your effortless way to easy writing. We go into more detail about it in this article.
That’s our point‐A‐to‐point‐B advice to you! Try putting it into practice, and let us know how it goes! Send us the befores and afters you’ve created at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will feature them (and your success story) on our blog.