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Frustration. Angst. Embarrassment. Anxiety. Fear. Insecurity.
I felt all those emotions every time I had to write an email, proposal, letter or anything else in my first high-profile corporate job. For some reason, I had to heavily rely on spell check, and my grammar was less than stellar — problems that had been causing me grief since grade school.
I suffered silently from not being great at these things, and it made me feel inadequate in everything I did. I mean seriously, what do you do when your grammar sucks but you’re in a high-profile career? Hire someone to do the writing for you? I wish. Ugh.
We all feel inadequacies, but for me, this weakness was so much worse. I felt like everyone was going to discover my shortcoming, and that I was on a downward path to perpetual failure. Then, a solution walked into my office in the form of the CTO (and my mentor). He was asking about some sales leads I was working on, and instead of answering, I blurted out, " I can't spell. I can't write. I'm so freakin' frustrated. I just can't write. Period. I'm so embarrassed." I knew my secret would be safe with him — plus I'm certain he read some of my work and already knew how horrible I was at writing.
He sat down and inquired about my out-of-the-blue revelation. I told him how dumb I felt when I tried to write, and I asked him how I could improve myself and get better. I wanted to get better. I wanted to be proud and polished with my writing. At first, his answer set me back even further. He told me that it's hard, because writing and spelling are things you learn over time — skills you either have or you don't.
But then he gave me some advice that would ultimately help tremendously. It was to read. "Read everything," he said. "Every newspaper you see, every magazine you can get your hands on, every single book you can dive into. Read, read, and read some more. Reading is the only way to see how good writers write. It's the key to improve your writing."
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That was the inspiration and push I needed. "I am going to conquer this," I thought. It took months and months, but I could tell that the more I read, the more my writing improved. I was feeling more confident. I began to start fixing all the little errors in my emails, texts and posts.
Ten years later, I'm proud to say I've started my own business, I've published two books, and I write for several publications. Who knew someone like me could overcome my writing obstacles and actually be decent at it?
I want to share nine of the tips I learned on how to be a better writer.
1. Practice, practice, practice.
I found the best way to improve was by writing and practicing any new rules or words I'd learned. I recommend that you keep a journal, write short stories, or just email back and forth with friends or family. Concentrate on improving any problem areas you might have or mistakes you often repeat. Definitely don't rely on grammar checkers alone.
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2. In business writing, less is more.
If you want to make a point or convey information, do it clearly and concisely. I realized that people don't like to read more than they need to. Using words sparingly usually makes for better writing. Try not to blether on and on.
3. Watch out for those pesky apostrophes and commas.
I kept screwing up the most common use of apostrophes — contractions and possessives. Now, I especially watch for words like it's — that's the contraction for "it is" versus "its," which is the possessive form of it. I pay attention to when to use an apostrophe to mean the possessive of something or someone, like "the computer of Mark" should be shown as "Mark's computer."
Pay attention to commas too. Use commas to separate words in a series, to separate an independent clause that can stand on its own and to separate an introductory word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence.
4. Talk like a human, not a machine.
In technical writing, jargon may be unavoidable, but try to use plain language as often as possible. Personally, my blood boils when I see people using unnecessary jargon and nonsense language, like "solutioneering." I figure people who use meaningless and overly technical words are really trying to say nothing.
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5. Cut out the passive tense.
I noticed that people often use a deadening bureaucratic voice. It's far better to use active voice, one that is more personal, direct and makes for shorter sentences. Most folks would rather hear, "We'll write to you" instead of "You will be notified in writing."
6. Write once. Check twice, or more.
Nothing is more embarrassing than ridiculous typos. Sure, we all make them. But an easy way to catch them is to write something, put it aside for a bit, and recheck it later for both typos and unnecessary words. Re-reading your own stuff later can also help you catch errors in tone that can cause you trouble later. Accept the fact that first drafts usually suck, but editing always helps.
7. Be professional, but not too formal.
Being too stuffy can put people off or obscure the point you are making.
8. Hang on to templates.
Whenever you write an especially good email, proposal, memo or other document, keep a copy you can adapt for later use. It will save you time and errors later.
9. Remember a call to action.
Most business communications have a purpose — something you want the recipient to do. Spell out the action you want them to take, just like you would do in any good marketing communication to customers or prospects.
I will never be a great writer. I know that now. Great writing may require a talent that few of us have. That's never been my objective. But I found that this issue of mine is not fatal or even permanent. Effective writing is a skill that I learned and honed over the years — and you can, too.
Although there was a time when I thought it was going to end my corporate career, I realize now that bad writing and grammar wasn’t something that kept me from doing or being anything I wanted Who knew something I thought was so crippling would turn into something I love. Believe in yourself, know you will get better, and, in time, everything will come together. You just gotta do the work.