What are you trying to say?

February 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’ve been doing a lot of writing coaching lately. Most of us learn grammar and spelling and punctuation at school, but very few of us learn how to write. And so I try to fill in that gap for people, one-on-one, because most of us have to engage in some form of writing on a daily basis. In my view, it’s an essential life skill.

Good writing is a separate skill from ‘being good at English’ for example, which is something I hear a lot. It’s a metaskill, as it were – and it’s something that can be taught. Yes it requires that you use good grammar and spelling and punctuation, but those are not enough. There are plenty of people who have good language skills, but who still struggle to write well.

By far the most common problem people have, in my experience, is that they battle to express themselves clearly. They use big words and complicated sentence constructions, and the results are sometimes incomprehensible. Just the other day I was helping someone with their MBA thesis and I came across a sentence that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. “What are you trying to say?” I asked. She told me what she wanted to say. “Then say that,” I replied.

People look at me like I’m nuts when we have that exchange – when I started coaching her, she couldn’t believe that was all there was to it. My own husband looked at me strangely when I was helping him to edit his M.Sc thesis, or to write a referral note for one of his patients. Over and over I would ask him what he wanted to say, he would tell me, and we would write that down.

The bottom line is that there’s no need to overcomplicate things. You don’t need to use big words to impress people – even in an academic setting. In all of my recent academic pursuits I’ve written exactly the same way I write when crafting a feature for a magazine or newspaper – in simple, conversational language. And each time I’ve been complimented by fusty old academics on the quality of the writing. If you need more proof, the selfsame MBA student mentioned above took her marks from the lower sixty percents into the eighties simply by working on her writing. And by working on writing simply.

So next time you’re stuck writing something – whether it’s a presentation, a speech, an e-mail or a note to your child’s teacher – just stop and ask yourself: what am I trying to say? Answer your own question, and then write down the answer. It really is that simple.

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