5 essential tips for better writing

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Do you want to improve your writing process? Today’s column will give you five key tips for better writing.

School has changed a lot since Sister Mary Rosa taught me to read in the 1960s — but one thing doesn’t seem to have evolved. The teaching of writing. Most schools don’t do much of it.

Sure, they teach little kids how to hold pencils to form the letter W and they grade the papers of pre-teens and teens with lots of red X marks for spelling and grammar mistakes. Better teachers even render little check marks for thoughts and ideas that are well expressed. But how many of them teach kids how to come up with their ideas and how to make a reasonable point? Precious few.

On the day after Labour day, when most North American kids are returning to school after a summer break, let me share with you five essential tips for how to approach writing. Learn them yourself, to improve your own ability and most of all, teach them to your kids.

1. Make a schedule. When you get an assignment — whether for school, your boss or a client — immediately write down a realistic assessment of how long it’s going to take you to finish it. Don’t think “oh that’s not due for three weeks — I can plan later.” Do it right away. Furthermore, don’t just think about your plan — write it down. This is important for two reasons: (1) it increases your commitment, (2) it gives you a track record against which you can measure your performance — useful for future planning. Being realistic is also extremely important. There’s large evidence that if you are a perfectionist you seriously underestimate the amount of time it takes you do anything. Be aware.

2. Spend more time on prep than on writing. When you prepare your schedule, remember to allow for a significant amount of planning time. There is nothing worse than sitting in front of a computer with a mind that’s blanker than your screen. In other words, in order to write, you need to have something to say. Writing takes preparation. It frequently requires research but it always involves thinking — and almost no one I’ve ever worked with has allowed adequate time for thinking. One of the best ways to think is by creating a mindmap. When you signed up for this newsletter, you’ll have received a little booklet on mindmapping. Get it out now and re-read it. Then do it!

3. Write in dribs and drabs rather than in one big chunk o’ time. I can’t tell you how many people regularly carve off an afternoon to write a report. Then they embarrassedly report to me how little they accomplished during this huge chunk of time. Don’t make a big deal about writing. Write a little bit whenever you have the chance. Say you’re waiting for a meeting to start. Start scribbling some thoughts in your notebook. Say you’re waiting for a call to be returned. Start typing. Take those dribs and drabs of time and make them useful. When you next sit down to write you’ll be thrilled to discover you’re no longer facing a blank page.

4. Separate your writing and your editing/re-writing. This is the single most important piece of advice I give. Do not allow yourself to start editing while you write. The two tasks are completely different and use different parts of your brain. When you write, write. When you edit, edit. Don’t confuse these very different jobs. As I say in my book, trying to edit while you write is like trying to wash the dishes while you’re still eating dinner. It really doesn’t work.

5. Forgive yourself. Guess what? You’re going to screw up and make mistakes. Your schedule will be inadequate. You’re prep will be incomplete. You may not find enough dribs and drabs of time and you may find yourself sneakily editing when you should be writing. Worst of all, your written work may not be perfect! So take a deep breath and tell yourself: “I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to get this done. I will have the chance to edit later. Moreover I will have future writing projects.”

The more you write, the better you’ll get. Just do it mindfully and with planning.

Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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