Write Like You Mean It

Take the plungeLate 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.

There was never a time when playing well didn’t matter to him. If you were playing, it was time to play, dammit.

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?

We’re writers. We should always try to write well.

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.

Good writing stands out. Always.

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.

…you’ll start to give them a glimpse of You, The Awesome Writer.

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.”

Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

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!

 

Image licensed from iStockphoto.com

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. says

    Nice article! I’ve definitely found Twitter to be invaluable in this regard, both as an experimental writing platform and as a source of inspiration. (Maureen Johnson followers, anybody?)

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  2. Elizabeth says

    Interesting, thought provoking post. I agree with you, up to a point. In most cases, writing well matters. Blog posts, short quips on Facebook, even tweets – any piece of writing where you have, or ought to take, time to compose – should be written with thought and attention. As you say, these are chances to practice and chances to present your best face.

    But then there are texts and chats. I used to be the sort of person who spoke very correctly. I didn’t correct others or make disapproving faces at their incorrect English, still, my manner of speech did not make me popular. In fact, some people outright disliked me on account of it. My social life became much better after I began letting participles dangle and splitting infinitives when I spoke. As modes of communication, texting and chatting resemble speech. ‘Sloppy’ language often communicates more effectively than correct English in texts and chats, and it’s less likely to make the recipient uncomfortable, I feel. Particularly with friends, it opens up a chance to be playful and experimental with written language.

    And that’s the last point I’d like to raise. There’s value in noodling around with words. I don’t experiment so freely when I’m concerned with quality from the get go. I agree with you that practice is of paramount importance, but it’s to be spiced with tomfoolery.

    Thanks for the article!

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    • says

      Elizabeth, I can assure you, “Tomfoolery” is my middle name (it caused quite an uproar at the christening). I also love to play with the language, but I guess I draw a distinction between “sloppy” and “experimental” – the definitions for which are clearly highly subjective.

      So I’m not advocating that you text with one hand while thumbing through Strunk and White with the other. If one’s “sloppy” writing serves to engage those with whom you’re communicating, that’s a win in my book. Thanks for writing!

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  3. says

    Thanks for reminding us that a writer is never off-duty, merely practicing our craft on any surface – paper or cyberpage – that we can…. not necessarily like a child putting a crayon to the wall, but taking every opportunity to exercise our writing muscles. Twitter is a good place for that!

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  4. says

    Great post, Keith. Beyond wordsmithing, I think it’s worth taking a look at the professionalism you display as well. From tweets to blogs, I’ve seen too many posts generated in the pique of the moment that, once reflected upon, are downright cringe-worthy for reader and writer alike.

    I’m not at all suggesting we suppress our emotional selves. But we’ll make the world a better place if we condense our rant into “at first I was dismayed” and then move on. We aren’t buying ourselves fans, books, or influence—or even, ultimately, self-respect—by shooting from the hip just because we have the digital means to do so. The whole point of our writing craft is to transcend simple self-expression (for which you might only need a four-letter word) in order to persuade, contextualize, and/or dramatize a greater point.

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  5. says

    Excellent post and I wholeheartedly agree, especially if one is trying to establish a consistent internet presence as a serious writer. Thanks for having the guts and grace to say it.

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  6. says

    I’ve noticed this on our own facebook group page. Occasionally a newbie will introduce themselves and/or pose their first query to the group in text-speech, with no caps and little, if any, punctuation. It always startles me. “This,” I wonder, “is the first impression you want to make on 2,000 potential writing colleagues?”

    While I didn’t draft this comment in a word doc, I am on board, Keith. Thanks for putting a spotlight on the issue.

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  7. says

    Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd have a great chapter about style in their new book “Good Prose”. They address what they refer to as The New Vernacular– an “aggressive informality” that is infecting contemporary prose. They site blogs as being especially guilty, saying”The new vernacular imitates spontaneity but sounds rehearsed. It has a franchised feel…”

    They sum up by writing, “The colloquial writer seeks intimacy, but the discerning reader, resisting that friendly hand on the shoulder, that winning grin, is apt to back away.”

    I agree. Writing which follows rules, is engaging and yet correct, is more professional.

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  8. Lisa Threadgill says

    I couldn’t agree more. The “aol-speak” type of communication drives me insane. Take the time. As far as I am concerned, writing and manners matter.

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  9. Judith says

    This was a true problem for my students in China. They were told it was okay by some other foreign teachers whose only qualification was that they spoke English.

    In China it is much cheaper to text. However, the shortened form of some words were a puzzle to me and I would have to find a student to “translate.”

    Ultimately I told my students that I would not reply to any text that had language “shortcuts” which opened the door for a lesson on good English. This increased their interest in learning real spoken and written English!

    Judith Coopy

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  10. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I passed your words above along to my son. He’s a lead singer in a metal band, and he’s all about the disciplined life it takes offstage, to create mayhem onstage. Thanks Keith for this reminder. And I have to admit I was very grateful the day FB installed an edit button under their comment box. While I may never become a great writer, I aspire to one day become a great re-writer.

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  11. says

    Good one Keith,

    You’re right.

    The vast majority of people are poor writers but that’s because many of these people are also poor story tellers.

    Have you ever tried to re-tell a joke that had you cracking up but every time you share it with other people they don’t get it?

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  12. says

    An agent I met for the first time at a conference already knew who I was and remembered my name because he’d noticed my posts on a message board we both frequented because, and I quote, “they [were] always well-written.” It matters, folks.

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  13. says

    This is a post to be archived and read again. So much of our lives have become about quick banter, I often wonder if anyone is listening—even to themselves. Thanks for showing us how to embrace this fast-paced world while staying authentic and true to our journey.

    What you’ve said here, reminds me of inspiration offered by Jessica Anya Blau at the 2012 Backspace Conference. Whenever she goes to the page she says, “If I’m going to die tomorrow, what will I write today?” It seems so intense, but once you ponder the idea it can’t be ignored. Why not embrace each opportunity with all that we are?

    Personal and professional growth comes in all shapes and sizes, but only if we allow ourselves to be aware. Thanks for opening our eyes, Keith.

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  14. says

    I’ve heard it said you can practice, practice, practice and still not be good at something because you’re practicing a mistake or sloppy style. Instead, perfect practice makes perfect skill.

    Or, in fighting, you practice as you would fight so if or when the time comes for protecting yourself, you don’t have to think about it. Same idea, practice like you want to perform.

    Great post.

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  15. thea says

    I’m a really fast typist and I tend not to use caps. sorry. I don’t beat up people for typos on fb, I mean facebook. My life is too short. Last week my kid criticized me for something I wrote on fb, and I was surprised. But truth is, I broke my glasses and the drugstore ones do not help my astigmatism, which affects my eyes’ ability to ‘see’ typos sometimes. And yet, I took the moment to snark at him good, and he laughed. That said, everyone knows that Craig Ferguson is Rod Stewart’s hairdresser.

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  16. says

    I’m guilty to a point. Elizabeth, I agree with you. Friends come in all educational varieties on Facebook, don’t they?

    Keith, this article is very inspiring. I’m going to pay attention for a few days and see just how lax my writing is online.

    Confession time: When I was involved in online dating, one of the first things to make me hit the Block box was poor writing. If a man couldn’t put together a decent paragraph, I felt he couldn’t be too smart. Shame on me – such a snob!

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  17. says

    First, let me mention that I’m a professional writer who worked for 17 years in the PR and marketing field, where I had to write all day. Then I became an author (3 books).

    What I found made me a decent writer is constant writing day in and day out. Like a journalist, I had deadline after deadline. I couldn’t spend all kinds of time fussing after every paragraph. I learned to write the first paragraph of every story in my head before I sat down to write–there was no time to make it perfect.

    As I kept writing, I took some advanced classes and learned to add color to my writing. The rules in the Elements of Style became entrenched.

    They say it takes 10,000 hours to really become an expert. I don’t think I’ve made it there, but I owe my professional expertise to the day in and out writing in which I had to learn to increase my output and not make everything perfect. So I agree to a certain extent. But the enemy to getting things done is to have to make it perfect.

    I recommend that people take a job that requires them to write, write, write. They will get better with time.

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  18. says

    I love this post. I tend to let typos and poor writing in nonwriter friends’ Facebook postings go (though I might start passing on their posts if it’s pervasive). However, it irritates me to no end when I see semipro and pro bloggers (by which I mean, people who hope to make money off their blogs via advertising, building a strong platform, etc.) use sloppy writing and poor grammar time and time again. They don’t seem to want to improve or go through the effort of becoming better writers.

    Granted, I’m thinking in particular of the food blogs I frequent, so the writers of these blogs may consider themselves cooks first and writers second. But regardless, they are in the business of communicating with people. I think they should take that seriously.

    Personally, yes, I do want to express myself well in all aspects of my online presence. That’s why I’m horrible at keeping up with social media. The majority of my free time goes to my work in progress. I haven’t yet figured out the balance of consistency and quality with both.

    Marilyn, I am right there with you on the online dating. Poor writing – not just the intermittent typo but genuinely bad writing – was/is an instant turn-off for me.

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  19. says

    I love the music analogy! The only place I can think of where writing doesn’t matter is grocery lists.

    Three years ago, I started teaching my teenage students how to reply to blog posts / news articles. The requirements of a reply? (1) It must be good writing. (2) It must show evidence of having read the original piece. (3) It must further the conversation. (4) If it seeks to criticize, it must (a) criticize the idea not the person, and (b) add something new (see “3”). I can only hope they take it beyond the classroom. Sigh.

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  20. says

    I used to perceive teaching composition classes as completely separate from my writing life. But recently, I started to see that it is truly more related than separate. Scoring student papers gives me a valuable opportunity to practice editing and to provide revision feedback, skills for which many of my writing and critique partners have complimented me. As you suggest, EVERY time I pick up a pen or set my hands on a keyboard, I AM A WRITER doing what a writer does! Yay!

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  21. says

    Thank you for this! From one who has embraced texting and Twitter, but can’t bring herself to abbreviate “through” to “thru” or the like. (Although I do appreciate those who are able to be very cleverly creative through language on Twitter. It’s an art.)

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