You stare at a blank Word doc. You open a new email. Your next deadline taunts you from way too close on the calendar.
If you’ve ever been responsible for writing anything, you know the feelings it can bring on: The dread. The anxiety. The uncertainty. They’re feelings everyone encounters at some point, regardless of whether you’re a professional writer. And even as technology zooms forward faster and faster, you know what hasn’t changed? The power of words. The importance of a well-crafted, clear, convincing message.
So how can we all become better writers? I talked to Ahava Leibtag, who coaches all kinds of writers as president of the healthcare marketing firm Aha Media Group. Whether you’re in charge of developing content for your organization or you just want to respond to a tense email without getting a stomach ache, she has great writing advice for you.
Understand the Goals of Your Writing
Ahava says many people are held up in their writing because they’re not clear about what they're trying to accomplish. “I'm a very big believer in beginning with the end in mind,” she says. She suggests asking yourself:
- What are you trying to get your audience to do?
- What's the purpose of the email/blog post/presentation?
- How are you serving your audience with this content?
“We're doing ourselves and our audiences a big disservice when we don’t know the answers to these questions, because we create more disappointing content that nobody needs. They don't want to read things that aren't really going to help them get closer to their goals,” she says.
She also warns against worrying too much about how you write. “People get hung up on thinking their writing has to be really flowy, inspirational, beautiful prose,” she says. Sure, style matters, but the information should come first. If you’re writing a piece with the goal of delivering answers, Ahava's writing advice is to think about your content as if it were SAT prep material: “What are the questions people have about this product or service and how can you answer them in a way that allows their eyes to scan down the page and find the information that they're looking for? Think about what your audience needs instead of worrying about creating something that people will read for pleasure.”
Don’t Wait for Inspiration — Just Start Writing
We often think of writing as a creative endeavor that requires some mystical, perfect combination of inspiration, time and genius to come together. Ahava says you can leave that image behind. “ ‘Inspiration’ comes from the Latin, ‘to be breathed upon by God,’ ” she says. “If everybody waited to be breathed upon by God, we wouldn't have any words or books or articles.”
As the mother of two teenage daughters, she points to a reliable reference point: Taylor Swift. “Vogue once asked her what it means to be creative. And she said it means to be struck with an idea and then sit down and work it out.”
“I think a lot of people think Taylor Swift walks into the studio, opens her diary and her guitar and … out pours a hit. But if you watch her videos about her working in the studio, you’ll see that she works really hard.”
History’s best artists were hard workers, too. “I remember one time I went to an exhibit about different Italian masters and their sketches before they actually started painting. And when you see these sketches you remember that they had outlines too. They weren't 100% sure what the painting was going to look like, but they had an idea in their head. And so they sketched it out. That’s the same thing as an outline — you're sketching it out and then you start filling it in.” In other words, even the masters had to start with a bad first draft before they could create a masterpiece.
“Writing is a process and it's OK to not get it right the first time. In fact, it's probably going to be better if you take it in stages and work it out.”
Her writing advice: “Just start writing out bullet points. That way when you open it again, there will be something there. You won’t have to stare at a blank page.”
Editing Is Everything
Getting your thoughts onto the page isn’t the end of the process. “A lot of bad writing comes from not editing,” she says. “More often than not you're saying more than you need to say. It's not that people don't write well or don't get their ideas out, it's that they're not willing to kill their darlings.”
In other words: “It's better to be brief most of the time.”
Brevity can especially help in marketing copy, she says. When you overwrite, “you're killing the sale. You're giving people so much information that they don't feel empowered to make a decision because they think ‘Where do I even start?’ ” Once you’ve given people the information that they need, figure out how to help them make the next step or interact.”
To achieve brevity, Ahava suggests writing down everything you think you want to say, then putting it away for a day. When you come back to your writing, you’ll be better able to see what needs to be cut. And she touts the power of a good editor. “Editors help you think through whether you’ve shared too much, or if it’s just enough information for your audience to be able to confidently make a decision.”
Shake Off the Impostor Syndrome
I think a lot of people have a story in their heads about who they are and what they’re good at. And for most people “writer” is not a key part of their identity. I don’t know if it’s the five-paragraph elementary school essays that make everyone feel stressed about writing or if we’re all hung up on making stupid grammar mistakes, but I’ve seen firsthand that writing strikes fear in most people. Even in Ahava! She’s a professional writer who runs a communications firm, and when I called her a capital-W Writer, she demurred a bit: “I don’t always think of myself as a writer because there are so many people who are better at writing than I am,” she says. “That’s a good thing to know — even someone who is considered an expert on writing doesn’t always feel like a writer either.”
Her writing advice if you feel the same way? Rethink your definition of what it means to be a writer. “What does that title really mean?” she says. “A writer organizes ideas and information so that another person can understand them.” If you’re a boss, a teacher, a designer or a strategist, you probably already do that, she says. You just use different tools to do it.
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