In my writing career, I’ve learned that sometimes drafting a good piece involves disregarding everything you thought you knew about writing. Writers’ clichés such as “write what you know,” and “it isn’t what you say; it’s how you say it” are passed through the internet as wise writing adages, but they couldn’t be further from correct if you want to improve your professional writing.
1) Bigger isn’t better.
A lot of people think that good writers should show off their impressive vocabulary, but when it comes to writing, bigger isn’t better. No matter the writing style, good writing should be clear and concise, not verbose. Select the words that will be best suited to getting your point across, regardless of how long or fancy they are.
This is not only true of creative or academic writing—it particularly applies to the business world. Renowned advertising executive David Ogilvy warns us to “never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”
If that seems harsh, a former English professor of mine would have even added “thus” to such a list.
Here’s another useful tip from Ogilvy: “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.” Good writing is persuasive writing, and persuasive writing makes your audience feel comfortable with you and trust you. Stuffy language can easily make your readers think you’re just putting on airs. If your audience doesn’t speak obtusely, you shouldn’t either. Whoever said bigger is better definitely couldn’t write.
2) Nobody cares what you believe.
This is an old favourite in cover letters, academic papers and sometimes even marketing copy. I don’t know why people love telling me about their beliefs; I really don’t care, and neither does anyone else. The word “believe,” written with the intention to soften a phrase and convey humility actually ends up turning a sentence into a non-statement:
I believe I would be a great candidate for the position.
We believe our company can serve you better.
I believe that this research proves my thesis.
These statements don’t mean anything to the reader. It would be much more convincing to say:
Due to my related experience, I am a great candidate for the position.
Your satisfaction with our company is guaranteed.
This research supports my thesis.
Pretentious writing will certainly cause you to lose your audience, but being overly humble comes off as unconfident at best and self-deprecating at worse. With a cringeworthy first impression like that, you lose your professional authority.
3) It isn’t how you say it. It’s what you say.
Perfection doesn’t exist in this world, and if you’ve written a masterpiece, it will be a masterpiece whether or not you decided to change “content” to “happy” to set the tone. What really matters is that you believe in what you’re selling. Intelligent readers will notice flowery but disingenuous text and feel irritated and cheated. The business-savvy are hypersensitive to fakeness. At the end of the day it is about what you say, so don’t stress over the little stuff and write with conviction.
For those who don’t believe me, consider this story.
A couple of months ago, while vending at a book fair, I met a writer. He tried to participate in a challenge to write a short novel in a month, but he couldn’t finish it because he thought it was just too awful. It’s now been over a year, and he’s still trying to complete that same challenge. He keeps writing drafts, trashing them, and starting all over again. This isn’t a good trap to fall into, because as Hemingway said, “the first draft of anything is shit.” When we strive for perfection, we don’t get anything done.
There’s no need to stress if your first attempt at writing a cover letter, report, proposal, or even your first attempt at a book was less than perfect. Don’t trash it and give up because you don’t think you’ve found the perfect words yet; keep going. We grow from experience.
4) You will miss your deadline.
Sometimes, through no fault of your own, you’re going to miss your deadline. That’s life.
This will happen to everybody at least once, whether or not you consider yourself a writer. This could be a professional deadline (you need to send a draft to your boss before you leave work, your teacher expects the assignment by next week, or the application deadline for the job you’re eyeing closes at midnight). It could also be a personal, self-imposed deadline, like the writer I met who wanted to finish a novel in a month over a year ago. You’re human, and at some point in your life, you’re going to miss a deadline.
Rather than give yourself a massive headache trying to rework what doesn’t seem to be working, take a moment to step away from the text and clear your head. Sometimes everything seems easier after a cup of tea and a walk in the park.
5) Write what you don’t know.
Telling someone that they have to write what they know is a huge waste of their potential. Writing what you don’t know is a great way to learn and gain perspective. Why do you have to be an expert in the field to take up a new interest? Look at Joseph Michael Nicoletti for example, who makes $20,000 to $30,000 a month by teaching novelists to use Scrivener, an app for writing. He made the videos for his online course as he learned the features himself. Whether vlogging or blogging, the same advice applies.
So take a chance with your writing, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn as you go. As long as your writing is clear, concise, and genuine, it will be persuasive. It really is that simple.