Becoming decent at writing

by seangljacobs

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.

I obviously extract more from some books compared to others in terms of literary value and writing content. I took about 2,500 words of notes from Nick Cater’s The Lucky Culture, for example, but only 600 words from Rupert McGuiness’ biography of the rugby player George Smith. This process is certainly not fun but it helps me improve.

Second, I continue spending a huge amount of time reading and building knowledge. It took me about four years of reading around fifty to seventy books a year before I thought seriously about submitting something for publication. And even when I did I was knocked back.

Third, find your authentic voice. I enjoy travel writers like the late Patrick Leigh Fermour but, in the end, I could never write like him. His swashbuckling and enchanting words are great to read but simply aren’t for me to put on paper. I enjoy the beauty of plain writing.

Expanding on this idea of ‘your authentic voice’ the late Christopher Hitchens – a formidable speaker as well as writer – advised his writing classes the following:

I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

Four, I’ve learned to write for the right context. Policy briefs, for example, are not places where you drop the names of scholars and lengthen out sentences to meet word counts. Universities and schools, however, are places where you can be given such latitude. Like my first point above, cherishing or mimicking good writing is achievable in any arena. Get hold of good memos, letters, briefs, emails, invoices, plans and mimic their coherence and layout.

One most obvious mistake I’ve been guilty of, and continue to see, is wordiness. We’ve all seen lengthy emails and wondered why they’re so long but say so little. Learning to use fewer words takes time but it can be a great way to improve your communication skills, direct outcomes and increase your own productivity.

The last activity that’s helped me to improve my writing is simply giving myself time to keep revising and crafting. A few years ago a submission I wrote to the Australian Institute of International Affairs Emerging Scholars Series was knocked back. I felt totally dejected but, for the better part of a year, I worked hard on another paper. Day after day, week after week, I continued to shape and recraft.

The editor changed just one word of my new submission. This is a good testament not just to bouncing back from rejection – an experience all great writers endure – but simply giving yourself time to sharpen up your written words.

Finally, better writing can lead to a better mind. It was said of Malcolm X that, with books and reading, ‘the honour roll student reappeared and the layers of street life faded.’ My writing story has followed a similar theme. Improved writing has helped me to lay out thoughts, be more methodical and refined the delivery of my message.