Why You Don't Write So Good

Seth Godin writes:

“The reason business writing is horrible is that people are afraid. Afraid to say what they mean, because they might be criticized for it. Orwell was on the right track. Just say it. Say it clearly. Say it now. Say it without fear of being criticized and say it without being boring. My best tip is this: buy a cheap digital recorder. Say what you want to say, as if the person you seek to persuade is standing there, listening. Then type that up. “

Maybe it’s the nature of the people I typically interact with (highly educated and opinionated), but I’m not picking up on a lot of fear of communicating in the workplace. In fact, I think Gen Yers are more confident expressing their opinions that Gen Xers or Boomers before them were.

My take: Fear might play a role in it, but there are other — and more important — reasons why business writing sucks.

If your writing sucks, it’s probably because you:

  • Aren’t thinking clearly. Poor writing — and poor communication in any form, for that matter — springs from poorly formed ideas and thoughts. Too much of business writing relies on buzzwords and meaningless platitudes — which are simply shortcuts for getting at the core of an idea or thought. On countless occasions on this blog, I’ve taken someone (blogger, researcher, etc.) to task for not critically thinking through what was expressed on the blog or white paper.
  • Aren’t clear why you’re writing. If your writing sucks, you probably haven’t figured out why you’re writing what you’re writing. Is it to educate the audience? Entertain the audience? Persuade the audience? Some of all three? If you can’t articulate why you’re writing, your writing won’t be very articulate.
  • Haven’t practiced. You can sing, can’t you? But just because you can sing, it doesn’t mean you can make good music. Same with writing. Just because you can speak, it doesn’t mean you can write effectively. Good writing is a skill. You get better by practicing.  If you’re not Beethoven, you’re not going to write a great symphony on your first try. And if you’re not Seth Godin, you won’t produce great business writing just by speaking into a recorder and typing up what you said.

Speaking isn’t a substitute — nor a prerequisite — for writing. When we speak, we use phrasing, intonation, and facial expressions to help convey meaning. If you simply translate what you say into the written word, something will be lost. I can guarantee that.

This isn’t the first time Godin has written about writing. Back in January 2008 he wrote:

“Don’t let the words get in the way. If you’re writing online, forget everything you were tortured by in high school English class. You’re not trying to win any awards or get an A. You’re just trying to be real, to make a point, to write something worth reading. So just say it.”

I said it then, I’ll say it now: DO let the words get in the way. Read through it through the eyes of your audience (to the best you can), and ask yourself: How will they interpret what I’m trying to say? Am I using words that could be misconstrued? Is there a simpler and more concise way to say what I just said?

Here’s why this is so important: The ideas that win in the business world aren’t necessarily the best ideas. They’re the ones that are most effectively communicated, by the most persuasive communicators.

If you want to record and type up what you say — with all your “ums” and “likes” and the poor grammar we get away with when we speak — go for it. Your writing will suck. And my ideas will kick your idea’s ass every time.

11 thoughts on “Why You Don't Write So Good

  1. Thanks. Next time you leave a comment like this, however, you might want to try writing:

    Amen! (I’d write more but I’m afraid.)

    🙂

  2. I think you are grossly oversimplifying what Seth was suggesting in that post. He was not suggesting that we do some sort of verbal stream of consciousness and then publish it. Like so much of his writing, this technique is meant to conquer that which keeps us from starting.

    Regarding the 2008 post, I completely agree with you. History too supports the fact that the ideas that win are not necessarily the best ideas but those that are best communicated by the most persuasive communicators. American politics present the perfect opportunity to see this in action.

  3. Jen: Seth wrote — and I cut and paste with no editing – ” buy a cheap digital recorder. Say what you want to say, as if the person you seek to persuade is standing there, listening. Then type that up.”

    What am I missing here? Sure, of course, when you type it up, you’ll edit out the “ums” and “likes”. And you might even fix the grammar. And you might even find out that what you SAID wasn’t what you MEANT. And where does leave you? Out $50 for a stupid digital recorder.

    I remain convinced that the core problem that Godin is writing about is not “fear of criticism” but poor, shoddy, uncritical thinking.

    I also remain convinced that if you want to conquer that which keeps us from starting, the answer is THINK first, TALK (or write) later.

  4. Pingback: What is “good” writing? - Media Bullseye: The CustomScoop Blog

  5. BD: I would never suggest that anybody “think before they speak.” that will never happen. However, I am advocating that if people want to improve their writing, they should think before they write.

  6. Love this post. My father, an English professor, made me aware that one of the most valuable things about writing is that it forces us to think more critically. The very act of writing (or nowadays typing), serves to help focus our minds on what it is we are trying to convey.

    One of the reasons why I like writing so much is that the act of typing forces me to slow my mind down and be somewhat more methodical and orderly about the many thoughts I have swishing around in my grey matter.

    I absolutely agree that Godin’s advice is nonsensical rubbish. Every medium is unique. Writing is a different medium than speaking. *IF* speaking into a tape recorder helps you write better, than by all means, do it. But why did Godin stop with this one suggestion? There are MANY different things a person can do to help them write better. It all depends on the person’s skills, abilities, aptitudes, and goals. For some people, they might want to clean off their desk before writing. Others prefer to be surrounded by mountains of books. Still others prefer writing everything out longhand with a pencil and hiring someone to type it up. Some like to write with the stimulation of their neighborhood coffee shop as background noise. Others prefer to seclude themselves in a remote cabin in the wilderness to write. There are many kinds of writing, many kinds of people and many kinds of environments. To each, their own.

  7. MP: Your Dad got it right. Although, I would say that writing HOLDS THE POTENTIAL to make us think more critically. I think the sad part of too much blog writing is that the writer is using the process to help think more critically.

    I’m well aware that I get pretty opinionated in this blog. I was taught at Forrester to “make the call.” In other words, don’t waver, don’t be wishy-washy, don’t be ambiguous.

    But much of the time, what I’m really doing is simply testing my position. That is, can I make a rational, emotional, and compelling argument for what I’m advocating?

  8. Yesterday I turned off the car radio to keep myself from shouting at the interviewer/interviewee for their annoying use of breathy “ums,” “likes” and “ya knows.” Unfortunately, writers also use filler words. From Mark Twain: “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

  9. Yesterday I turned off the car radio to keep myself from shouting at the interviewer/interviewee for their annoying use of breathy “ums,” “likes” and “ya knows.” Unfortunately, writers also use filler words. From Mark Twain: “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

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