We’ve all had moments of writing angst. The blinking cursor on a blank page. The empty email reply box. The unwritten proposal for that important project. The response text to a client you’ve drafted and deleted three times. Every day, business owners and professionals have to write. Whether you work in a firm with support staff or on your own, chances are you have writing that needs completed, even as you read this article.
As a business owner, I face similar writing moments. From general daily email communication to proposals, articles, and even books, I’ve written them all. Yet, I don’t see writing as a task to be completed, but rather an opportunity to create. Sure, I don’t love plowing through emails, but I do get a tiny thrill out of crafting a well-thought, clear message. As a former high school language arts teacher turned author, speaker, and trainer, I’ve also taught thousands of people how to improve their writing. I love writing so much that I got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the subject!
But here’s the thing: I get that not everyone loves writing as much as I do. Maybe you sigh deeply before diving into your inbox, or put off writing a report because you really, really don’t feel like it. Maybe it takes you hours to write a proposal, or perhaps you’ve had some bad personal experiences with writing. Wherever you land on the love-hate continuum, I want to help. My hope is that you sit down at your computer feeling confident, clear, and emboldened to write your best email, proposal, article, text, or social post ever.
Ready to become a faster, better writer? Let’s do this.
#1 Batch your writing
The secret to success in writing is time blocking and consistency. While you may not write creatively every day like I do, chances are you need to think strategically or work on other projects that require your focus. In our book “Growing Influence,” my co-author Ron Price and I refer to this focused space on your calendar as “discretionary time.” Creating consistent blocks of time to write, strategize, or create every day – preferably first thing in the morning – is scientifically proven to increase your productivity.
The idea of time blocking applies to emails, too. I suggest batching your emails: Reply twice a day, around 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Remember that constraint begets productivity. Focus for a specific, set period of time – ideally 30 minutes – with a hard stop at the end of that period. You might surprise yourself at how much you can accomplish.
Not convinced? Try my strategy for two weeks and see how it goes. You can always go back to how you’re doing things now. I bet you won’t want to!
#2 Write without editing
“Write fast, edit slowly” is a saying I often quote to my aspiring author students and clients. This is true for both long-form content such as books, and short-form content such as letters or emails. It’s a waste of time to laboriously edit a sentence before moving on to the next one. Instead, I suggest writing quickly, getting all your thoughts down, and then starting back at the beginning to refine your writing. Of course, the amount of editing time will vary based on the importance of the writing project. But, even for simple emails, I suggest writing them quickly, reading back through, and making any necessary tweaks before sending.
#3 Know – and focus on – your reader
One thing that can help is to focus deeply on your audience. Too often, we have internal chatter that prevents accessing our own thoughts, ideas, and insights while writing. Negative self-talk and self-criticism can sabotage writing flow. Instead, keep your focus on the reader. Ask yourself, what do they need to know, experience, or understand from this piece of writing?
When working on articles or proposals, spend time thinking deeply about your reader. This doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complicated. Before writing this article, for example, I spent a couple days contemplating your needs and how to support you through this piece. I set a reminder for myself, so that I could informally consider the possibilities before ever sitting down to write. As I sat down to compose, the page was blank for approximately one second because I was bursting to create. Considering your reader ahead of time can help you have a similar experience when you write.
#4 Use first-person pronouns – most of the time
I’d guess that 97 percent of writing should be in the first person, using singular pronouns (I, me, my, mine, myself) or plural pronouns (we, us, our, ours, ourselves). Yet my students, clients, and colleagues often write in third person (he, she, it, they, them) for their websites, LinkedIn bios, articles, and even books. In the past, more formal, academic-y writing in the third person worked; today, it feels stuffy and impersonal. There are a few exceptions, such as a bio for an event, but largely first-person pronouns are the way to go. Writing in the first person helps the reader feel connected to you, and enables you to live and breathe on the page or screen.
#5 Use specific, clear language
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast. I know, I know – quoting Hemingway in a piece about writing is a tad cliché, but I can’t help but reference this quote because it’s … well, true. Too often, writers get hung up on sounding smart, and end up using unnecessarily complex sentences and flowery vocabulary that confuse readers. After you write fast, and as you edit slowly, look to simplify. In my previous career as a book editor, my biggest task was word annihilation. I spent hours slicing and dicing sentences to drill down to the essence of what the author was trying to say.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a cover letter to a new client proposal. Instead of saying, “In the following pages of this proposal, you’ll find a detailed, step-by-step exploration of our various stages of work, including our methodology, proprietary system, and team expertise, and how we can support you through the future phases of your business,” try, “In this proposal, you’ll find a detailed overview of how our expert team can best support the future of your business through our industry-leading methodology and proprietary system.” Notice how I shifted the focus from you to them and simplified the language, so that it’s clearer and easier to understand. I also ninja-chopped thirteen words. And you don’t miss them, do you?
#6 Eliminate unnecessary words
Words like “that,” “very,” “really,” “just,” and other unnecessary words can often be removed without impacting the meaning of a sentence. For example, “I’m very tired” could become “I’m exhausted,” or “that’s really interesting” could read “that’s fascinating.” The word “that” and “just” can usually be removed without any additional editing. Hemingway’s quote, for example, could remove “that” to read: “Write the truest sentence you know.” And “I just really like option one in the proposal” could read “I like option one in the proposal.” Or for stronger language, try, “I prefer option one in the proposal.”
Repetitive or layered adjectives can often get the axe, too, or a sentence can be restructured for clarity and impact. Instead of “The party was loud, pulsing, and crowded,” try, “The party pulsed with noise and people.”
Two other phrases that I’d love to see eliminated? “I think” and “I believe.” While these can begin powerful statements, too often they discredit ideas or expertise. Rather than “I believe we are the best fit for your needs,” try, “I am confident we are the best fit for your needs.” Instead of “I think Sarah is our best candidate for the position,” say, “I see Sarah as the best candidate for the position.” Subtle shifts in language can make your writing clearer and more influential.
#7 Use a read-aloud macro
Ready for a pro tip? Have your computer read to you. I programmed a macro on my Mac to read back important documents, emails, and other content. A macro is an input (such as keystrokes or clicks) that tells the computer to complete a task. Once a macro is installed, simply highlight the text, push your chosen keyboard keys (mine are command + /), and listen. Alternatively, read your own writing aloud.
For more information, check out this article for Apple computers, using the “keyboard shortcut” option. Windows isn’t quite as straightforward. While Microsoft Word has a read-aloud feature, you may need additional software for other writing tasks like email. Reference this article on how to use the built-in narrator to read text on your screen aloud.
As with anything in life, remember writing is a skill. No one is born knowing how to form perfect sentences, write an engaging article, or author a bestseller. Instead, practice and consistency are a writer’s secret sauce. You can improve the quality and speed of your writing. Try out my tips on that important email waiting for a reply in your inbox right now.
If you’re feeling especially excited about writing, I did a training for Intuit®, complete with a detailed handout and writing guide to help you craft your core message and write your professional story. Access a free professional story writing guide created for my QuickBooks® Connect session.