What’s your top writing challenge?

When we started using computers, we became writers. Like it or not.

The trouble is many people had never learned how to write with the skill, speed and grace required for the staggering amount of writing we are expected to do.

As a result, people get frustrated when their co-workers misunderstand their emails, make embarrassing mistakes or have trouble distilling their great ideas into 140-character tweets.

If you sometimes struggle, I’d like you to share your experiences here. From your input, and my 30-year writing and editing experience, I will be writing an e-book, called The First 30 Words or maybe Write Like You Talk–Only Better.

Because many people make the same mistakes, it shouldn’t be difficult to point out the most common minefields to avoid, such as long-winded introductions, confused sound-alike words and punctuation that serves no purpose.

Common sense advice
Over the years, I have also learned a lot of simple techniques for encouraging readers to pay attention, remember, relate to and maybe even act on what I’ve written. To add to my stash of writing tips, I encourage you to share what works for you. I’ll bring them together in the book.

Don’t worry about boring grammar rules. I’ll avoid terms like compound adjectives and subordinate conjunctions. Promise.

Few rigid rules
In fact, I’ll advise you to flout certain rules if it makes your writing easier to understand or more engaging.

If you want to know the rules, there are many great books and blogs on the fine points of grammar. We don’t need another.

But we do need a guide for people who sometimes struggle with all the writing they’re expected to do.

Share your experience
To write a book that reflects the issues so many people face, I’d like your help in preparing this book. I know I’ll learn from you too.

I’ll preview chapters in this blog, so subscribe, comment and join the conversation.

Tell me what’s difficult or what bugs you. Share your frustrations over writer’s block or clients not reading your white papers.

Let’s get the ball rolling by commenting on these basic questions:
What are your biggest writing nightmares?
What are your top tips?

Writers, if you provide a tip that’s shared in the book, I’ll make sure you receive credit.


20 Responses

  1. My biggest writing challenges are coming up with the topics and deciding if anyone will care. A lot swims through my head every day and I now try to pay more attention and think how that fleeting notion could become a blog entry, or maybe a newsletter point-of-view.

    Sometimes I think ‘that was just a random thought, no one would be interested.’ But often, the truth is ‘that was a random thought in the head of someone with a lot of experience and specific expertise which I take for granted.’

    Then there’s putting that string of random thoguhts into a coherent, intelligent form that people who are not in my head can follow and learn from.

    I have a couple of execution tips:

    1) GO BACK TO BASICS – When I’m writing something longer I go back to essay writing 101. Remember the five paragraph essay? That’s intro, supporting arguments (3) and conclusion.

    2) HAVE IT PROOF-READ – I find this with design too; when you’ve been staring at something for a while, you are very likely to miss something obvious. Get someone else to look at it.

    3) WRITE FOR THE AUDIENCE – By this I mean write thinking about what’s in it for them. We often write (as non pros) to promote our businesses. This is more effective if you approach it as providing information that demonstrates/proves your brilliance instead of ‘we’ve been in biz since…’ OR ‘we provide award-winning….’ Avoid buzz words or industry lingo.

    4) BREAK IT UP – Huge blocks of text are very daunting to read, especially online. Break it up with:
    • Sub-heads
    • Bullet points
    • Graphics or photos

    Good luck!

  2. Great advice, Faith. It’s always wonderful when designers understand how to relate the words and visual relate. n

  3. My top tip is ensuring that I understand the goal or the point of what needs to be written. For example, today I’m working on a sell sheet for a client. Before I write one word, I need a thorough understanding of what my client wants to accomplish with this sheet AND a thorough understanding of what will compel my client’s clients to READ this copy. Then I somehow have to come up with exact tone and words that will come together in a successful sell sheet. I guess I should get to it!

    Good luck with your project, Barb.

  4. Dear Barb:
    This is not a tip; it’s a challenge I face regularly. I have been writing for a living for 30+ years and many of my clients (breweries, high tech, universities) have young clients (i.e., way younger than I). I spell well and my grammar is competent. However, I’m sometimes tempted to try to write in a way that replicates “netspeak” and, in theory, resonates more strongly with a younger audience. What do you and your friends think about writing in the vernacular of the moment?

  5. Thanks Donna

    I agree that clear thinking leads to clear writing.

    Hello Steve.
    If you’re writing to the netspeak audience, I think it’s appropriate. Speak in the same language as your audience, I always say. And if you’re writing for more than one group, plain, clear English will ensure that everyone understands.

  6. Barb,
    My top tip is to keep in mind “What’s in it for the reader?” It’s not important to stuff the who, what, when, where, why and how into the opening sentence. Build those things in early, yes, but open with the most interesting or significant fact and what it means to the reader.

  7. Thanks Sue. If everyone followed your advice, reading would be so pleasant.

    I’d like to add a question that was posted on the next post, Are you Sponge-Worthy, by mistake: How do I know when to use a comma?

    Answer: if you are hesitating, there’s a good chance you don’t need the comma. Read the sentence with the comma in, then with the comma out, and ask yourself whether the comma makes the sentence easier to understand. If it doesn’t help, don’t use it.

  8. This is a great thread, Barb. My biggest writing tip repeats the ‘What’s In It for the Audience’ concept, but I would take it further by suggesting you sharing stories of a personal and authentic nature. As much as I want to teach theory and concepts to my readers, they won’t learn and won’t be interested enough to read through if I can’t clarify what I mean with a true story. Real world examples and personal stories illustrate what I’m talking about. (Oh dear, I really should include a story right here, right now, to make my point, shouldn’t I! Hmmm, I did this on my blog this morning.)

  9. My biggest writing challenge is finding enough uninterrupted quiet time to sit down and craft what needs to be written.

  10. […] commas help or hinder your readers? Posted on July 3, 2009 by barbsawyers In response to What’s your biggest writing difficulty? Mary McKenzie asked what to do when she’s uncertain about whether to use a comma. I responded […]

  11. Inspiration. I think it’s the biggest challenge to come up with an idea that is fresh and original. With so much content online, there is a constant challenge to make sure no one has read anything like your stuff before, and, if they have, then it’s making sure your writing stands out from the rest.

  12. […] Barb Sawyer makes a point where she says – “Everyone has become a writer, thanks to computers. Often not […]

  13. I am very fortunate to be one of those people who has more ideas than time. I have a lot of writing issues I’d like to cover. I have daily client experiences that get me thinking. And I have a lot of older material I can revise and update. My advice: Make a list. When an idea strikes, add it.

  14. When I have some passion about a topic and can support it with experience or evidence I seem to be able to write about it with some wit and flourish. However when it comes to wanting to do a blog post that is informational my writing feels dull, dead. stodgy, boring.

    In addition, while attempting to add some video to my blog I noticed that even my speech can be hesitant, interrupted with uhmms, errrs etc. I need to write, rewrite and rehearse in order to be able to speak. Somewhere you mentioned writing as you speak – well for me the issue is how much time it takes for me to achieve writing and speaking that is worth putting out there.

  15. You hit the nail on the head–time. Some bloggers are trying to create a myth that writing is quick and easy, that everyone should be able to produce a quality post every day. Nonsense. As Mark Twain once said: it always takes me at least three weeks to write a good impromptu speech.

    Quality writing takes time. Writing spontaneously is a great way to get into the flow. But it needs to be edited.

    Writers are like ducks. We seem to glide on top of the water effortlessly. But underneath, where readers can’t see, we are paddling furiously. I’ll post soon about Write You Talk–Only Better.

  16. My biggest challenge is getting the ideas out of my head and fleshed out enough to make a post of it.

    My tip is when you’ve got an idea for a longer post, break it up. Make it into two or even three posts. It helps me to focus on one section at a time, it is easier for visitors to my blog to read, and it gives me more posts on my blog.

  17. Barb,
    Like you, I often coach writing for non-writers. My favourite advice: you don’t have to start at the beginning. People often say “I don’t know how to start it.” I say, “so don’t.” Go on to the points you do know that you want to make and then go back and write the beginning later.
    My other frequent piece of advice is Write Like You Talk – so I love your tentative title ! I often meet non-writers who their work to sound “writerly” or “grammatically proper” and end up twisting themselves into passive voice and awkward phrases in an effort to sound “correct.” A regular talking voice may need a bit of spit and polish for the final draft, but it’s a great place to start !
    Have fun with your project, and best wishes.

  18. I love your point about starting where you are comfortable, then going back and revising. Thanks.

  19. […] of my recent and upcoming posts respond to feedback I received on What’s your biggest writing challenge?, in the comments as well as LinkedIn discussions, email and personal […]

  20. Hi Barb,
    As you know, I’m a market researcher with 20+ years experience. Yes, I’ve hit the point where being more specific about years simply translates into “she must be old” rather than “she must be good”.

    Here’s a few things I’ve learned over the (many) years…

    Tell the story. Don’t “report the findings”
    While this point is particularly true with market research where we show charts and have to interpret what they mean, it does apply to a multitude of other situations.

    For example, if you attended a seminar and 9 out of 10 people said it was great, don’t write “9 out of 10 people I spoke to said it was great”. This is so “uncaptivating”! The bottom line is that “The response was overwhelmingly positive”. Simple. To the point. The rest is unnecessary – particularly if a chart or more details follow.

    The present tense is far more impactful.
    When we write research reports, the people we surveyed “were” surveyed. Fait accompli. But, studies are designed to capture current opinions and “now” is far more meaningful than “yesterday”. And “now” simply carries more weight.

    Think about it: “Male cyclists that were interviewed said that they shaved their legs” versus “Male cyclists shave their legs”. A bit more “oomph” too, I think.

    Forest first please. Then the trees.
    “Italian red wine has far more citric acid than Spanish or Californian red wine”. Not particularly clear or interesting unless you already know that “Scientists have found that the citric acid in red wine helps slow the aging process.”

    (Before you head out to the LCBO, this is strictly a hypothetical example.)

    If presenting is your thing, use it to write.
    I once had a British guy working for me that could captivate an audience. He was clear. He was articulate. He could tell a story that was mesmerizing. But he absolutely could not write. As it turned out, he felt that writing had to be different – more academic, more technical, and far more laborious.

    In order to turn it around, I handed him a deck of charts and asked him to “tell me the story”. I recorded what he said and voila! It turned into a brilliant report and in everyday language. (Unfortunately, this guy sat in the cubicle next to mine and from that day on he muttered while writing.)

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