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I love to read. Unfortunately, the reading I do for work is so rarely pleasant. You might think that’s because of the subject matter. Who enjoys reading about mathematics, algorithms, and business practices? I do. This person, right here.
The problem is that most professional writing has been ruined by over-processing. To torture a metaphor, the author has selected a delectable, perfectly marbled steak of a concept and cooked it to death. They’ve reworded and reworked a bunch of sentences to maximize clarity. They’ve trimmed any fat, and flavor, away from the article so it’s a narrowly focused quick read. The resulting article is so well done it’s charred. It’s tough, dry, and unappealing. The kind of article where you don’t judge someone for smothering it in ketchup. It’s no wonder no one wants to read it!
Why is so much professional writing dry?
Writing exists to do a few things. Everyone has a short list of reasons for writing, and none of them perfectly overlap. Here’s my take:
Effect change in the reader
Allow the author to reach a broader audience
Note how I said “Writing exists to do a few things.” I emphatically did not say “Professional writing exists to do a few things.” Professional writing is just writing.
Once more, with extra whitespace for emphasis!
Professional writing is just writing.
Professional writing focuses on a restricted set of subjects, to be sure, but it exists to do all of the things above. So much of the professional writing I read focuses on points one and two to the exclusion of the last two points. That is why it fails.
“Fails?”, I hear you say incredulously as if I didn’t lose you in the introduction of this article. Yes, reader, I married him it fails. If your writing is so clear and focused that it becomes dry and dull people will stop reading it. You can’t inform or convince a reader if they stop reading. As a reader, I want to hear the author’s opinions and insight, not read an appliance manual.
How do I write better?
You’ve already solved it, by asking the question. “How do I write better?” “How do I write better?” You write.
I don’t mean in the sense that you need to write in order to write better. That is true; practice is important. I mean that you need to be the one doing the writing. Let’s revisit my fourth point on why writing exists:
4. Allow the author to reach a broader audience
See that? The author. Me at the moment, but soon, you. You need to allow yourself to reach the audience through the written word. I hope that when people who know me read my writing, they hear it in my voice. When a stranger reads my writing, I hope their model of who did the writing is at least somewhat aligned with who I am. If nothing else, it helps them brace for meeting me.
How do *I* write better?
In this hypothetical argument we’re having, I now hear you say “Yes chef, but how do I make sure it’s my voice that reaches the page?”. Thank you for buying into the theming by the way; it means a lot to me. Well, you can start by not prematurely filtering yourself. Stop reining yourself in. Make the powers that be say “You know, we really can’t publish that unless it gets edited.”
Forget for a moment that you’re writing in a professional context and just be yourself. Do you swear? Then please teach me some new dirty words so I can impress my friends and shock my enemies! Do you like metaphor and idiom? Use them, and I’ll squirrel your acorns of wisdom away for when I write next. Alliteration aficionado? You’ll be first against the wall come our glorious revolution, but until then lovingly let like letters loose from your pen.
However, don’t expect that all of you is going to make it into the final draft. Crass and colorful as I am, even I acknowledge that sometimes my prose can get in the way of my point. Writing is a creative process, but good writing is also a subtractive process. I think of my first draft as a block of unhewn marble. Pretty in its own right, but not the finished product.
To get from block to the statue, I ask people to proofread and edit my drafts. When I’m looking for someone to help me edit my work, I’m looking for someone who:
loves me enough to tell me when my writing is bad
cares about me so they back me down from the really bad ideas
likes reading for its own sake
A good editor is worth their weight in gold. Find someone you can work with, establish that relationship, and then nurture it. Your editor is like a line cook, plating your dishes so they look appealing to the reader. You can’t be screaming at them in the back and then expect them to gratefully continue to do their tasks to the same high standard. People just don’t work that way.
Professional writing exists to convey information and engender action or change in the reader. Just because it’s meant to inform and convince doesn’t mean it has to be dry and technical. Frankly, it shouldn’t be. Convincing arguments demand passion. Engagingeducators are excited about their material and what it enables. That passion and that engagement are contagious if you can convince your audience that it’s authentic.
Next time you write professionally, please make sure it’s your voice on the page.