Late last year, my WU colleague Porter Anderson wrote an excellent post about the importance of trying to write well. Much of his post was focused on writing with extreme precision and specificity, and it served as a great reminder of how we can sometimes let our own standards slip in those departments.
But there’s another aspect of writing well that I’d like to explore today. Something less technical and more internal. I’m talking about the overall level of effort we put into our writing, and – more specifically – how and when we apply it.
OMG! The Humanity!
One of the biggest changes the Internet has brought to our lives is a heightened emphasis on reading. Although video is becoming increasingly popular, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of information we ingest and share on the Internet is transmitted via the written word. As a result, we are reading – and writing – probably more than we ever have. This increased reliance on written communications has resulted in numerous shortcuts and side effects. Some particularly egregious examples include the dumbed-down aol-speak and texting acronyms and abbreviations that have infected many people’s online writing styles. OMG, it’s enough 2 make me gag – LOLZ!
Over the years I’ve noticed how sloppily some people treat Internet-based writing, and it always puzzled me that this trend has even trickled into the communication habits of people who aspire to write professionally. You see this particularly in writers’ forums, but it’s rampant everywhere online – glaring typos, unclear questions or statements, and other indications that little or no thought was given to the written expression of a person’s thoughts. This has always baffled me when I encounter such carelessness in a writers’ forum – after all, an environment like that offers a chance to demonstrate your own writing skill to your peers, as well as to those further along in the publication journey.
I think it stems from this: most people think there are times when writing well matters, and times when it doesn’t.
I submit that if you’re aspiring to be a professional writer, there’s never a time when writing well doesn’t matter. So I’m advocating that whenever you pick up a writing implement or lay your hands on a keyboard, you should write like you mean it. Next, I’ll try to explain what I mean, and then show you some of the benefits.
A musical analogy
When I was about a decade into my career as a professional drummer, I began working with a pretty famous rock bass player, an intimidating man-of-few-words who was the most powerful bassist I’d ever played with. In addition to his playing becoming a major influence on me, his mental (and even physical) approach to playing influenced me even more.
Some background: Through sheer repetition and muscle memory, most professional musicians develop a high degree of fluency on their instruments, and are able to play some pretty good stuff even when they’re lackadaisically messing around. Particularly in rehearsals or jam sessions, where there’s no pressure to “perform,” many musicians play their instruments very casually, paying no more attention to their playing than an inveterate smoker does to her twentieth cigarette of the day: it’s in her hand, she knows what to do with it, and she doesn’t need to think about it, and can focus on other things.
Not this guy. He never treated music that way. He might get loose and informal in a conversation (particularly if the wine was flowing), but when he strapped on his bass guitar, his entire demeanor would change, mentally and physically. Even his stance would change, to the sort of bent-kneed ready-for-anything position of a seasoned fighter. And when he’d start to play – holy crap! It was like a freight train blowing past you – you needed to either hop on, or get the hell out of the way.
And it was the same every single time he picked up the instrument. The guy had two modes: playing and not playing. And when it was time to play, that’s all he focused on. In other words, there was never a time when playing well didn’t matter to him. If you were playing, it was time to play, dammit.
[pullquote]There was never a time when playing well didn’t matter to him. If you were playing, it was time to play, dammit.[/pullquote]In addition to this being a sign of musical commitment, this approach has its practical side as well. By always treating your playing with the same intensity, you’re reinforcing the high standards you set for yourself when performing, and getting in the habit of always playing/practicing/performing to your highest ability. Basically, by this mindset, it’s never okay to do any less than your best. I learned so much from this guy, and it improved my playing immensely, and has informed my approach to my own instrument for the past 20 years.
I think Porter was advocating a similar approach, and I’m onboard with him. We’re writers. We should always try to write well. Whether it’s your Facebook status, an email to your boss, or a text message to a loved one. Why not reinforce the fact that you “have a way with words?” Why not show that you A) are aware that you have the ability to communicate in writing that is likely more highly developed than the average person, and B) care enough to tap into that ability?[pullquote]We’re writers. We should always try to write well.[/pullquote]
Look at it this way: every time you write, it’s practice at doing the thing that you aspire to do professionally. Why miss an opportunity to get in a little practice?
Practice makes professional
I believe the arts are every bit as challenging and competitive as professional sports. Many want to be in the game, but few make it all the way into the pros. And you can bet that the ones who make it have put in a LOT of practice. The cool thing is that for us, getting that practice doesn’t require a gym, a football field, a hockey rink, a piano, a dance bar and mirror, or a soundproof room. All we need is a pen, pencil, or keyboard. There really are very few obstacles, and countless opportunities, particularly if you’re the sort who is active on social media or other web-based communication platforms. You can literally write all day and night if you choose to.
But why does it matter?
I’ll be blunt. The vast majority of people out there are not terribly good writers. Writing is a skill that requires hard work and/or talent. Not everybody has that talent, or the willingness to do the work. As a result, good writing stands out. Always. Whether it’s a short story, a novel, an office email, a query letter, or a mere Facebook post, good writing stands out.
So, it’s pretty simple. Write well, and you’ll stand out.
[pullquote]Good writing stands out. Always.[/pullquote]I truly believe this. Most of the literary “connections” I’ve established over the years did NOT come from face-to-face interactions. They came from interacting with people online. Which means they came through people seeing how I write – and I’m not talking about my fiction. No, most of them were simply exposed to how I express myself in writing on discussion forums, social media, blogs, interviews, etc. Look, I’m not saying I’m an amazing writer, but I am a decent one. And I can make that fact apparent even with a blog comment or a Tweet.
So can you. But only if you treat writing like it matters.
Once, twice, three times a winner
With apologies to Lionel Richie, there are at least three ways that this approach can be a winner for you, in particular if you apply it to the virtually endless audience that is the Internet:
First, you’ll start to engage readers. By showing that you’re literate, coherent, intelligent, funny, snarky, self-deprecating, or whatever you choose to show them, you’ll start to give them a glimpse of You, The Awesome Writer.
Second, you’ll begin to be noticed by – and to acquire – new professional colleagues. Good writing stands out, particularly to others who write well. [pullquote]…you’ll start to give them a glimpse of You, The Awesome Writer.[/pullquote]So the good writing you do will ultimately be noticed by other pros and aspiring pros. Some of them can help you. Some of them can be helped by you. Some of them may simply become your friends. Any way you slice it, those are all winning scenarios.
Finally, it’s more practice. And you’ll just keep getting better if you continue to apply yourself each and every time you write.
Social media in particular is a great platform for practice. Trying to develop your ability to write humorously? Start trying to post funny Tweets or Facebook statuses (or is it stati?), and see how people react. I swear, Facebook is like the club circuit for a standup comic – it’s a fast and invaluable way to see which of your jokes are working and which ones aren’t. Ditto for Twitter, where you can easily see how often your words are re-tweeted. And those words don’t necessarily have to be funny – that’s just an example I chose. Your words just need to be worth reading.
Seeming effortless is hard work – just ask Rod Stewart’s hair stylist
Just remember that it will probably take some work. The funny Facebook status that famous writer posted this morning? There’s a good chance it took her 3 or 4 drafts to get the humor right. That insightful remark another famous writer made on somebody’s blog? It’s not unlikely that he typed it in a word-processor first, then tweaked and spell-checked it. Maybe I’m wrong about how many tries it took them, but one thing is clear: they put the work into expressing themselves well, whether it was their first draft or their fourth. Like my close personal friend Nathaniel Hawthorne always says, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
[pullquote]Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne[/pullquote]Why all the bother? Because already being known as a writer, each of them wanted to come off as a good writer, and realized that even a Facebook post can help drive that point home. That’s why some authors are so successful on Twitter and Facebook – they give us a taste of the same great writing we find in their books, sometimes in as few as 144 characters.
So can you. The good news is, you’ve got an endless practice room/football field/blank canvas/dance studio/choose-your-own-metaphor at your disposal, thanks to Al Gore’s weberrific invention. And all of these online channels give you an opportunity to show the world how you write.
Don’t waste that opportunity.
How about you? Do you think there are times when writing well doesn’t matter? Or conversely, have you had experiences that drove home the notion that writing well – even in a seemingly trivial context – has caused things to work out well for you? Please chime in, and thanks for reading!
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