born writers

Leaning into Better Writing, One Word at a Time

Someone once asked me the secret to good writing. I told him it starts with turning obits into living stories – and spending a lifetime getting rid of bad writing habits.

Someone once asked me the secret to good writing. I told him it starts with turning obits into living stories – and spending a lifetime getting rid of bad writing habits.

Good writing is critical to effective communications, especially in public affairs. Good writing involves knowing what to write, how to write it and what to leave out. And it helps if you can write intelligently and efficiently.

Good writing rarely occurs without mastery of your subject. If you don’t know what you are talking about, it is impossible to write about your subject clearly and coherently. Do your homework before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

Subject mastery leads to identifying a hook that can capture and hold the attention of your audience. Hooks serve as convenient hangers that let details of your subject naturally unfold for readers. Hooks also can be turned into crisp, catchy headlines. You can measure the sharpness of your hook options in test tweets.

Mastering a subject enables a writer to base a central argument on the most salient details while omitting interesting, but extraneous other details. Don’t tread on short attention spans by trying to tell everything you know about a subject. Readers don’t care how much you know. You need to engage them on what would be useful for them to know. They will find that much more interesting.

Concentrating on critical details provides focus for both the writer and readers. Savvy writers bond with their prospective readers by marshaling details to answer the questions readers would ask. This is especially important in persuasive writing when the main objective is winning agreement and support.

Careful attention must be paid to placing details in a logical sequence that readers can easily follow. The architecture of writing can take the form of a story, a report, a talk, a presentation, an essay or a blog. The logic train for each form varies, but the details always remain on the rails of a logic train so readers and viewers know where you are headed. 

When you reach the point of putting your thoughts on paper or a computer screen, try writing a complete draft that covers your hook, central argument and supporting details. Don’t worry if it is rough. That’s what editing is for. Editing may involve correcting typos to a full rewrite. If your first draft inspires a rewrite, that’s a good thing, not a bad omen.

When unsure whether you have hit the mark, ask trusted colleagues to give you their honest appraisal. Gentle editors can mix honesty with useful advice.

Writing fast can be a blessing or a curse. Sometimes it is both. Looming deadlines dictate when a piece of writing must be ready for prime time, but not how long it should take to get your story, presentation or blog just right. Adjust your schedule based on how well you write under pressure. If you work slow, give yourself enough time to think, research, write, edit and polish. Don’t short-change your reader with a slapdash job of writing.

The best writers are good listeners. They hear the melody of words and know how a good sentence sounds. They can replicate in writing how people speak. They employ everyday phrases and expressions.

Excellent writers understand words can paint pictures in the minds of their readers with vivid imagery, careful detail and active verbs. As the saying goes, good writing is a ship to anywhere you want to sail. This kind of writing demands constant observation. Some note-taking helps, too. 

Writers have egos, but they can’t act like spoiled princes and princesses. Great writing shines through regardless of the medium. Charles Dickens published his greatest works in monthly installments. People couldn’t wait to read each installment because of Dickens’ keen observation and authentic storytelling.

Don’t believe that barf about “born writers.” Like athletes or engineers, writers have to learn their craft through study, practice, trial and error. You don’t pole vault 17 feet or design a robot in your first outing. Good writing requires the same level of dedication, the same blood, sweat and tears. 

Writer’s block is a fiction, an excuse to give up. If you need a break to clear your head or work over a sentence in your head, take a break, don’t reach for a mental crutch. 

You can be a good writer and still work on perfecting your craft. Write letters, compose poems, volunteer to give a speech or maintain a daily journal. Keep looking for your unique voice. Think of new ways to attack the written word. Stretch your comfort zone. Whatever you do, write.

The Picasso Museum in Málaga, Spain, the great painter’s birthplace, contains 285 works that show the artist’s evolution in style and technique. What startles viewers are Picasso’s traditional paintings that formed the bulwark of his skill as an abstract genius. Picasso could never have created his cubist masterpieces without the foundation of learning how to paint a realistic garden. Great mastery isn’t an accident or a gift. It is earned. 

All of us may not have the ability or opportunity to become grand masters. But nothing stands in our way of getting better every day to the delight of our readers – and to the grudging respect of our doubters.

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Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.