Becoming decent at writing

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

In 2006 a university lecturer told us that if there was anything to ‘get’ out of a university degree it was to become a decent writer. Doing so, he added, would make our professional lives much easier.

Almost a decade into my career I’ve seen his point validated more times than I can recall. From writing policy briefs for Australian Prime Ministers to slide presentations for Fijian swimming coaches, I’ve seen that reaching a decent standard of writing is a key skill in many professional (and even personal) arenas.

Getting there, however, is tough. At least I found it so. Submitting assignments and other written pieces over the years I always believed I had delivered world-shifting prose matched with unique insight. My tutors, I thought, simply didn’t know what good writing was. Like the fool driving down the wrong side of the road, and thinking everyone else was crazy, this process was an example of ignorance at its finest.

Taking feedback about your writing is hard because, quite simply, it means putting your ego in the back-pocket. And it means a sobering reflection on current capacities. But it’s here when you can start to get better. ‘Once I realized how little I knew about writing,’ says the prolific writer and economist Thomas Sowell, ‘I could start to learn.’

Despite being a hard path to follow I’ve strangely found that, perhaps more than any other skill, writing is incredibly easy to work on – you don’t need a swimming pool, a running park or a gym. From sitting on a bus to lying in bed writing can be worked on at any time. Here are a couple of simple things that have helped me so far.

First, I’ve found examples of decent writing and cherished them. We all have passages, writers and turns of phrase that tug a chord with us. I say ‘cherish them’ because, without recording them, you will inevitably forget. I tab up each book or article I read with mini post-it notes (or the highlighter on kindle), then take notes and save them on my computer.

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