3 Golden Keys to Better Writing

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According to Grammarly, more than two-thirds of salaried jobs require a substantial amount of written communication.

In today’s fast-paced, web-centric workplace, the written word is essential for cultivating a professional voice. Good writing shows intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and attention to detail—attributes that are highly prized by employers.

It’s not unusual to interact with globally dispersed colleagues, suppliers, and clients without ever having met them in person—we communicate via email, text, and other collaboration software. We can make or break business relationships with even the briefest written exchange.

Good writing skills can seal a deal, or save our skin.

Here are three golden keys to developing writing skills.

1. Tell Stories key

Lists and facts are useful, but it is stories that resonate with people. Stories are memorable and can easily be re-told by others. We're hard-wired for stories.

So, the key here is to begin with a story—and the more personal and relevant it is to your message, the better.

There's nothing like some examples to explain a point:

In a blog post advising people about making friends in college, Katherine Whitehead tells the story of her hopes, dreams, and expectations, then brings us back to reality with the real story of college life.

I remember my senior year, when dreaming of that wonderful place called college land, I told my best friend in high school I knew I’d make, at the very least, fifty friends.  Little did I know, that wouldn’t be the case.
I tried clubs, joining a sorority, everything.  Everyone seemed to always be doing their own thing in college and had no interest in maintaining a friendship outside of loose chitchat in lecture halls or social gatherings.  Unlike the dream I had of my thousands of college friendships, I ended up with a very small number of close friends who I could now, after eight months, call my sisters.

In this blog post example, entrepreneur Peter Gasca relates the story of how parenthood changed his view of the work life balance and taught him some important lessons about business.

When I first started dating my wife, she told me that I was too selfish to be a dad.
… I was selfishly consumed in my first startup, Wild Creations, and was rather proud to be a childless bachelor at the time.
Children were nowhere on my bucket list.
Things changed, and as fate would have it, I fell in love. I convinced her to marry me despite my selfishness (among many other flaws), and we eventually had two amazing children, all while building my business.
Becoming a father toppled the paradigm that entrepreneurs had to choose between business and parenthood. In reality, I found them to be very complementary.

Lifestyle blogger Joanna Goddard tells a story to convey how much she likes Trader Joe's grocery store:

A few years ago, my friend went to her in-laws' house for dinner. They were a formal couple, and she had always been nervous around them. Her mother-in-law served coq au vin, and her father-in-law opened an expensive bottle of red wine. Everyone raved about the meal, and she graciously thanked them for their praise. Cut to an hour later: My friend was helping clean up in the kitchen, and opened the trash—only to see four packages of Trader Joe's Coq au Vin! BUSTED!
But it proves that Trader Joe's food can be seriously delicious.

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2. Take a Free Online Writing Class key

Three classes I took last year helped me try to express myself rhetorically, tighten up my grammar and discover what makes a good story.

Rhetorical Composing is a course where writers exchange words, ideas, talents, and support.

Rhetorical concepts are ideas and techniques to help inform and persuade audiences:

Ethos: the source's credibility, the speaker's/author's authority

Logos: the logic used to support a claim; can also be the facts and statistics used to help support the argument.

Pathos: the emotional or motivational appeals; vivid language, emotional language and numerous sensory details.

There were two aspects of this course that I particularly enjoyed:

  • the very active sharing that is encouraged within the forums—where you will learn from peers, provide constructive feedback to others, and most importantly, become more comfortable with “letting go” and writing from the heart in a supportive environment.
  • besides writing, the course devotes a whole week to visual communication. Today’s online world is highly visual, and so the assignment to create a movie or poster for a “public service announcement” was very practical and useful.

Create a rhetorical poster exercise: Help End Poverty. Now

Image: A poster created with the goal of using Pathos as an emotional appeal on the issue of poverty.

Video: An exercise on the course to create a short Public Service Announcement (PSA) video (30-seconds or less) using free tools and commons images and designed to rhetorically communicate the negative impact of driving while using a cell phone.

Write 101x: English Grammar and Style will help you articulate ideas more clearly and create web content that's engaging and effective.

There are several writing assignments, including one to create a 300-word blog article about writing. I chose to write about a topic that has intrigued me for some time—why so many great writers were known for their prolific alcohol consumption, and whether this had a positive impact on their writing. Here's my article as featured on this blog.

The course structure flows nicely from one lesson to the next and involves some unique technology for click-and-drag interaction within quizzes.

The click-and-drag user interface is very intuitive
The click-and-drag user interface is very intuitive

Breaking StoryAn Introduction to Journalism takes you through six topics: what makes a good story; writing news; writing features; opinion writing, politics and journalism; and investigative journalism.

A unique innovation with this course was the case study running throughout the six weeks. A fictitious scenario—a story—unfolds that reflects the many real-life situations encountered in journalism. Not only was this fun, but it was a great way to engage and immerse students in a journalist's day-to-day activities.

What made this MOOC special was the lecturers. Not only academic, but industry experience: pounding the streets for newsworthy stories; building trust and relationships with interviews in challenging circumstances; tackling some of the most pressing issues of their day—such as serious miscarriages of justice.

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3. Get Into the Habit of Writing key

As with most skills that we learn in life, the more we practice, the better we become. And so it is with writing. In fact, the more we write, the easier it gets.

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits says that writing daily helps clarify your thinking. He says that writing for an audience helps you see things from their perspective. This leads to more empathy and a broader understanding of the world.

My favorite advice from Leo is that writing helps us build friendships with an audience of like-minded people—which is great for socializing and building lasting business relationships.

Leo says to do the following:

  • Commit to writing daily
  • Set aside the time
  • Start small
  • Blog
  • Shut down distractions

Read his full article here.

In an interview with Seth Godin for AdAge, Josh Bernoff, VP at Forrester Research, asks what his blogging secrets are.

Seth Godin

Seth explained that it's a lot like learning to play saxophone:

Training helps, listening to records helps, but mostly you blow a lot until you resonate and then repeat, prune, experiment, prune, repeat, prune until a groove occurs.

One reason Seth encourages blogging is that it expands vocabulary and enhances a voice. He says that we all see things differently. Some people visit New York and marvel at a thousand sights, others eat at restaurants and send home a post card.

Habits like blogging often and regularly, writing down the way you think, being clear about what you think ... All of these are useful habits.

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