Speed Read: thousands, maybe millions, of professionals around the world — native and non-native English speakers alike — find themselves in roles where writing occupies a disproportionate amount of their time. ‘This is not what I signed up for!’ they cry. But it falls on deaf ears as the deadline for that important email, client alert, executive summary, business case or thought leadership piece looms. They do their best, but many feel there must be a better way. There is.
If you’re a professional — lawyer, accountant, engineer, architect, consultant — you probably chose your field because of its inherent technical content, such as interpreting legislation, auditing company accounts or designing a building. You probably didn’t choose it to write about it.
Yet that’s precisely what most professionals end up doing.
In an age when we can ‘publish’ our own content on a whim, the written word has never been so important. When clients receive several alerts from law firms on the same piece of legislation, how do they decide in that nano-second which one to open and read? Probably the one with the most engaging subject line and readable content.
Like it or not, we are all writers now.
Yet many professionals — bright, educated, thoughtful, conscientious — struggle to write well. And you may be one of them. You’re technically great at what you do, but you’d be the first to admit you’re not a natural writer. Maybe you never really got your head around conjunctions, prepositions and gerunds at school — and few of us learn to write by reading Shakespeare, Dickens or Eliot (much as I love them). The written word has become a vital, but unpublicised, part of your role.
You’ve become an Accidental Writer.
Accidental Writers tend to fall into one of three camps:
- You know you could write better, but it does the job and you’ve got other priorities.
- ‘You’ve either got it or you haven’t’. You believe that good writers are born, not made.
- You sense there is a better way, but you don’t know what that is.
If you’re in Camp #1, fair enough.
If you’re in Camp #2, I’m afraid I disagree. Like cooking or swimming, the ability to write with impact, power and persuasion is a learnable skill. I should know: using my 21 rhetorica® techniques, I’ve shown thousands of professionals around the world how to produce engaging written communications, sometimes with astonishing results.
If you’re in Camp #3, I agree with you: there is a better way.
Accidental Writers make the mistake of thinking that:
- The more detail they put in, the less risk to them and their firm
- They must show how clever and expert they are
- They must write in a formal style
The result of The Detail Myth is long, turgid, often unstructured documents that dump on the reader and say ‘There you go, you work it out. Pick the bones out of that.’ Not unlike this (the original was even longer):
A bed-fellow of The Detail Myth is the ‘CYA’ mindset: the writer is more concerned about covering their backside than genuinely communicating with their reader.
The ‘Look-How-Clever-I-Am’ Myth produces documents that are writer-centric, not reader-centric, ie they talk more about the writer/the writer’s organisation than about the reader or the reader’s challenges, issues or needs. They think that impressing the reader with their expertise is the same as convincing them; it’s not. Like the party bore who’s more interested in themselves than in others, writing like this turns readers OFF.
Formal writing (technically referred to as high-register language) is a biggie in B2B comms. Professionals full of personality, insight and fun leave all that behind when they write. So they use purchase when they just mean buy, remuneration when they mean pay and utilise when they mean use or apply. The net effect is stiff, pompous, lifeless language that turns the reader off (again).
Nothing kills personality faster than formal writing.
I think uber-formal style is a throwback to school, where many of us were taught that ‘serious’ writing meant formal. But serious doesn’t have to mean dull.
So, if you’ve identified yourself as an Accidental Writer, apply these five cures to the above ills:
- Get to know your reader and write about what most matters to them, ie focus on them, not you
- Include only information critical to the reader and ditch the rest (or hyperlink it to another page)
- Help your reader find that critical information through a clear structure
- Write in plain English, eg build vs construct, help vs assist, ask vs request
- Keep high-register or technical language to a minimum
Note from Scott: I hope this blog engaged you. Pls let me know what you think by dropping me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks…and good luck with your writing!