Seek to Serve

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If you want to…

  • write joyfully and efficiently, and
  • write in a way that is readable, informative, and engaging, and that supports your brand

…you do not need mastery of the English language and its mechanics. You don’t even have to know how to spell. (If you are, however, hopeless when it comes to spelling, punctuation, grammar, and such, you probably need a good editor.)

Write for a better world

To write well requires five things:

  1. a clear purpose
  2. an honest message
  3. respect for the reader or audience
  4. respect for the language
  5. enjoyment of the task

Writing becomes an act of war…

  • when writing is an ordeal, a burden, or a bore
  • when the writing distances readers and hearers—through boredom, obfuscation, or intimidation

Obfuscation is not a well-known word, but it is the best term for “lack of clarity” when the murkiness is deliberate. Dictionary.com defines obfuscation as “making something obscure, dark, or difficult to understand.” Wikipedia takes it a bit deeper: “the willful obscuring of the intended meaning of communication by making the message difficult to understand, usually with confusing and ambiguous language.” Think Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and “It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.”

Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory.

When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees. Hostility in the air has social costs.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous.* “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.

You will hate writing it you make it about “the rules”—grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling. Instead, first communicate with respect; then enjoy the motion—rhythm, flow, and cadence. The best way to learn these traits is by reading good writing and experimenting with them in your own writing.

The habit of helping

All writers would do well to cultivate the habit of curiosity, particularly when the object is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or energize a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”

Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 12 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 12 do unto you.”

And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you need to use your turn signal if yours is the only car in the intersection or if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. Is it really necessary to signal a turn if nobody’s watching, or if it’s obvious that you’re turning? On the other hand, it’s not exactly a hardship to press down on the turn-signal lever. Making a habit of something sets you free from the need to make a decision. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might or might not be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?

Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.

Studies consistently show that human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings. —fastcompany.com

When smart people can’t write

In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.

Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and distancing, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.

Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.

Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify

  • lack of focus or disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message.
  • lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled.

There’s little I can do for the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:

Writers who don’t like to write

Many unskillful writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves “harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.”

The sort of unwieldy writing we’re talking about—the basic flaw being too many words—is said to have originated back in the day when lawyers were paid by the word. Legal documents do tend to be long-winded, often as an attempt to leave no loopholes unplugged—the CYA excuse. But this sort of overexplaining has splashed over into everyday writing, where it’s really not necessary unless you think that everyone is out to sue you. They’re not. If you believe that they are, you have a bigger problem than poor writing skills.

The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber

Can you speak?

One of the great fallacies about writing is that it is essentially different from talking. Perhaps you sit at the computer, hands poised above the keyboard, and your mind signals, “I am writing,” as if you are wearing the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. Your brain goes into overdrive. Gears and pulleys clank into place, lumber into motion, and produce ponderous phrases and paragraphs you have no memory of composing:

The state-of-the-art virtuosity of Jumbo-Omni Systems’ advance-intelligence meta-solution integrative strategies reconfigure the clients’ multidimensional objective into positions compatible with fixed and liquid assets, human-resources skill sets, machine autonomy….

I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus—which doesn’t mean that their colleagues or readers haven’t wanted to poison them. In any case, writing to serve is a remarkably effective cure.

What are you waiting for?

If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:

  1. Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.
  2. Lighten up. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Unless you’re writing to communicate genuinely terrible news, don’t take your topic too seriously either.
  3. For every writing assignment, define your role; that is, ask yourself how you can serve your audience.
  4. Clarify your purpose. You can make an outline if you want, although it’s easy to get bogged down in an outline and sabotage your own progress.
  5. Have fun writing your first draft. Let loose. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases that occur to you, but don’t force them. Do not edit as you go. Just write what you want to say, then set it aside for a while.
  6. With a fresh eye, edit for content and style. Is your message clear? Crystal?
  7. Proofread for mechanical errors—grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so forth.
  8. If there’s time, ask someone else to read your draft for content as well as correctness.
  9. Write final copy and distribute.

Shitty first drafts

It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. The right-brain/left-brain theory has fallen out of favor, but, for whatever reason, stopping often to analyze your work interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.

Author Anne Lamott, a novelist and Christian writer who is celebrated for her irreverence, is a proponent of “shitty first drafts…. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” (Bird by Bird, 1994)

The point here is not that you try to write badly but rather that you write freely, without evaluating as you go. Stay focused on your purpose. When you’ve finished your shitty first draft, you can pretty it up and make it more palatable.

Exercise

Write a brief biological sketch for yourself.


from Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

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