Writing is a trade with skills

One of the first jobs I had in charity publishing was to copy-edit a short book written by one of the organisation’s team leaders. I was shocked at how bad it was. The content was dull and lifeless, the tone distant and awkward. All the customary faults were there—long rambling sentences, clichés, jargon and grammatical errors. All simmering away in a half-baked stew of shallow thinking and superficial logic. The job turned from copy-editing to a structural rewrite very quickly.

Being presented with a weak typescript wasn’t in itself shocking. What took me aback was that it came from a highly-regarded professional who spoke eloquently and with passion about his specialism. He was much in demand as a speaker. He was highly-rated by his team as a thoughtful and supportive leader.

I thought at first this didn’t add up. I came to realise it made perfect sense. It wasn’t an aberration. He wasn’t having an off day. There is an obvious explanation.

Becoming a good writer involves lots of practice. To improve, you need to develop the habit of being dissatisfied with the first, second and even third drafts. You need to become good at interpreting briefs, and knowing when to ask for a rebrief. You need to think hard about readers, who they are and what motivates them. You need the skills to research and interrogate sources, and the sense to know when you have done enough, and when you haven’t.

Most of this is not intuitive. Acquiring these skills is often hard, solitary work that feels frustrating rather than rewarding. For many people it is much less appealing than the conviviality of conferences and seminars, keynote speeches and champagne breakfast meetings. If those are the things you like doing and are good at, and what makes your job a success, that is what you will fill your diary with. You are not likely to book out time to redraft that thing you bashed out on a train.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some people are superb communicators, in person and in print. Just as there are skilled electricians who are also good plasterers. But it is not the norm. You may be lucky and find one. But you ought not to assume that you will. Writing is a specific trade, with skills that need to be worked at and honed. Asking someone who spoke persuasively at a conference to write for you might be like asking a bricklayer whose work impressed you to do the electrical wiring on your central heating boiler. You might regret it.

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