Saturday, 5 December 2009

How to write if you're not a writer

Writing doesn't come naturally for everyone, but we all need to write well in our daily routines. Technology has made written communication all the more important. And for some, it adds pressure and anxiety.

No-one cooks at the same time as they assemble their ingredients, yet that's how many people expect to be able to write. They sit down at the keyboard, and expect to get the message right in one go.

But writing is made up of three distinct parts, a bit like preparing a meal.

Here's how to take the pressure off yourself, and create better writing at the same time:

1. Gather your ingredients.
Who are you talking to? What do you want to say to them? Identify the key parts of your message, not in sentences but in ideas.

For example, you need to invite someone to a collaboration website you're setting up, and you want to give them some context around why you're inviting them.

The key parts of your message - your ingredients - could be:

* I'm inviting you to this collaboration website
* The collaboration website does these things...
* The team who will be collaborating on the website are...
* The purpose of us doing this is...

Notice how there's no numbers, just bullet points. We don't put things in order until step 2.

Even better than bullet points is a mind-map, or post-it notes. You're gathering all the ingredients, make sure you have everything you need, and not any more.

2. Sort the ingredients.
What part of the message needs to come first? If you're using post-its or index cards, you can physically re-sort them. Try to find the logical flow of your message.

How do you find the logical flow? it's a bit of an art, but this may help. Think of the key parts that would make more sense if you had the information from previous key points.

For example, telling me who's on the team makes more sense if I know what the purpose of the team is. Telling me what the collaboration website does makes more sense if I know I'm invited to the website.

As you do this, you may find that some of your cards are actually saying the same message. That's good! We're making sure we're saying everything we need to say in as few words as possible. Both parts are important, "everything we need to say", AND, "as few words as possible".

3. Write the message.
You now have your ingredients and are ready to start cooking. You have the skeleton and can put some flesh on the bones. This is where you can think about all that fun stuff like grammar and spelling.

The good thing is, you don't have to think about the other stuff, like what part of the message goes where, or whether you've included everything you need to include. You've already done all that stuff.


I'm not a great cook, but when I do cook people are generally pretty happy with what I prepare.

It helps if I have a recipe. But as I practice, I also start to see beyond the recipe, to the principles of the recipe. I start to experiment, to discover my own way of cooking.

Writing is the same. We all can write; some of us need a bit more structure than others. And like any skill, you will get better and faster as you go.


Ilai Amir said...

Great post, thanks Simon! I am wanting to improve my writing as I have many ideas for stories but always am frustrated when I try to get them out quickly and perfectly like magic. Thanks for this post, it put things into perspective and really makes sense!

Simon said...

Thanks Ilai! Really glad the post was practical and useful to you.

Krista said...

Thanks for the tips - I absolutely HATE writing but love cooking, so this was right up my alley!

Tried the post-it note suggestion and it really helped with the process, making things slightly less painful all around.

Simon said...

Fantastic! So glad this was helpful Krista.

Gravity Canyon said...

hey simon whats up