Writing with purpose

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Every once in a while I read something that makes me say, out loud, “Why couldn’t I have said that first?”

A New York Times blog post by Danny Heitman that made me do just that.

He cites late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who wrote about how a former boss would edit his writing:

In his hand was a pencil; down on each page one could expect, at any moment, a long swishing wiggle accompanied by the comment: “This can go.” Invariably it could. It was written to please the author and not the reader. Or to fill in the space. The gains from brevity are obvious; in most efforts to achieve it, the worst and the dullest go. And it is the worst and the dullest that spoil the rest.

“It was written to please the author and not the reader. Or to fill in the space.”

Heitman’s article is about brevity, but this quote is about much more than that. It’s about writing with purpose.

How much of the content we create fits this description? How much of our writing “can go”? Too much, I’d say.

Why? My first three suspects are low expectations, time and lack of purpose. (There are plenty of others, for sure.)

First, workplace writing isn’t very good, and it is at its worst online, where so much of today’s writing is published. Unfortunately, too few people are bothered by it. And if someone in the communication department isn’t willing to fix things (or isn’t capable of fixing things), anyone with a keyboard can be an author. That’s great for democracy, perhaps. But it is bad for good writing.

Second, writing well takes time. There’s an old Twain quote: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” It’s true. Good writing requires planning and editing. Six hundred words is a lot easier than 100.

Finally, most of us write because we have to, not because we have something urgent to say RIGHT NOW. As a result, our writing doesn’t say anything urgent or even mildly important. We’re not writing for the reader or even for our cause. We’re writing for a deadline.

Low expectations and time are often our of our hands. But as writers, we can fix the “lack of purpose” problem. Before I write anything, I ask my clients to approve a single sentence or paragraph that sums up what we want the reader to believe. If we can’t agree on a single idea, we usually end up with a complicated, wandering draft.

When we do agree on a single idea, not only is the final product better, but the process is much smoother.

I’m going to pull together some tools (books, etc.) and tricks I use to wage the war on bad writing. Stay tuned. And let me know if you have any suggestions. How do you battle bad office writing?

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