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.

Writing to be read

Does anyone have to read what you write?

In some circumstances, yes. If you’re doing an exam, it’s fair to assume someone is going to read your sweated words. If the marker doesn’t like the first couple of paragraphs, tough for them. They have to plough on. So do teachers reading student essays. There are other kinds of written statements that are pretty much sure to be read by someone—because it’s their job. Someone in an insurance company will read your claim form. Someone in the justice system will read your witness statement.

But don’t exaggerate the number of these “must reads”. They are few and only in particular circumstances. Always bear in mind one of the fundamental truths:

No one has to read what you write.

If that wasn’t bad enough, your potential readers are very likely deluged with material that they want to read, feel they should read, or are being told by others that they must read.

Don’t despair. Just accept that writing is a competitive business, and you have to work hard to gain and keep your readers’ attention. Then think through what it means for your writing and its structure. The usual lessons are

1. Get to the point, fast. There’s no time for extended introductions or broad reflections.

2. Make your piece interesting, rewarding and fun to read. If that’s not possible, at least remove all obstacles that might stop someone reading or cause their attention to wander.

Be precise, be persuasive

Here’s a short but telling illustration of the power of concrete, precise detail in writing.

It’s just an everyday exchange in a neighbourhood community. Someone posted to the online forum with a question:

I’m looking for recommendations for a good conveyancing solicitor please. A fair price is important but really after somebody who is reliable, available to take your call, and gets the job done without too much delay.

Eight people replied giving the name of their contact and the  company of solicitors. Some just said they were very good or highly recommended. Some didn’t even comment, just giving the name.

One person recommended avoiding a particular firm, “as we found their communication poor”.

One solicitor replied with his phone number, saying “contact me and I’ll be happy to quote you”.

Another respondent said, “My mums friend is one and she’s really good. Let me know if you want her details.”

All of which is a little bit useful. But not much. Then came this reply:

I used Mxxxxxxx at Dxxx & Dxxx in March for our conveyancing, she was brilliant, all emails answered within half an hour, rang us as soon as she heard anything, nothing was too much trouble, she chased everything for us, and then gave back £250 as it turned out to be less expensive for the searches than they had quoted for. I would not hesitate to recommend.

Look at the detail. This sounds like a person, someone you can relate to. You can almost picture her. These aren’t vague abstractions that tell you very little—“very good” or “highly recommended”. There is specific detail that is so precise you could pass it on to someone else—about the refund, the amount and the speed of response.

Notice too how she’s addressed precisely the issues that the questioner was asking about.

As a piece of persuasive written communication this is streets ahead of all the others. The other responders may have had equally good, or better, solicitors. But as a vivid, believable, memorable recommendation, this one wins by a mile.

This is a quick post on an online forum. The same techniques are just as powerful in bid writing or sales letters.

It’s the concrete detail that makes the difference.

stalking the wild sentences

David Allen, the stress-free productivity guru, is an excellent communicator. But he sometimes lets his sentences run wild. Here’s the beginning of a newsletter item I came across while purging my inbox. Its title, Stalking the Wild Projects, is a lot more vivid than the writing.

Perhaps the most profound result of creating a complete and accurately defined inventory of our projects is how it can propel us to do something positive and concrete about ephemeral and ambiguous situations that have our attention. We are all capable of taking dominion over every problem or challenging situation we encounter. But this doesn’t happen by itself.

Can we stalk the faults in this wildness? The 37-word opening sentence is clumsy. The language is unhelpfully abstract, with nothing tangible, no appeal to any of the senses. Some of the words and phrases are not earning their keep. The paragraph begins tentatively and ends vaguely.

One particular point of style jumps out. David Allen is very fond of pairs. He likes to group words together, connected by “and” or “or”. Note these:

complete and accurately defined
positive and concrete
ephemeral and ambiguous
problem or challenging situation

Noticing this tendency provides a good way in to editing the piece. Could these doubletons be reduced to singletons? Might they be lost altogether? This is likely, since such pairings are often inserted mechanically, without much thought.

Here’s the paragraph without any of those couplings.

Perhaps the most profound result of creating an inventory of our projects is how it can propel us to do something about situations that have our attention. We are all capable of taking dominion over every situation we encounter. But this doesn’t happen by itself.

That’s lost nearly a quarter of the wordcount—14 words out of 58. It’s quicker to read and it doesn’t fog the mind so much. The exercise also clarifies what’s wrong with the structure of the opening sentence. The main clause falters: “Perhaps the most profound result…is how it can propel us…”

That’s a major cause of the clumsiness we noted. It could be improved, slightly, by tidying:

Perhaps the most profound result…is that it can propel us…”

Perhaps the most profound result…is the way it can propel us…”

But really it needs a rework.

Back to the main point. Has removing those paired phrases lost something essential from the paragraph? It doesn’t seem to say a lot now. But it’s doubtful whether putting back modifiers such as “complete”, “accurately defined” or “ephemeral” will add very much.

I think the central points need identifying and the whole thing restructuring. For an exercise, you could try it.

Here’s my version. Shorter, and not a doubleton in sight:

We are all capable of taking dominion over challenging situations. One reason we sometimes fail is that we don’t have a complete inventory of our projects. Our attention is grabbed by situations that are ambiguous and for which we have no concrete plan.

cutting it shorter

Typescript with amendments and nibbed pen

You’ve been working on a piece. It’s ok, but it’s too long. Here’s a routine to help get it down to size. Cutting is painful, but your piece will be the better for it.

step one: zap the weeds

Quickly check that there are no more obvious cuts, no more low-hanging-weeds that you can easily lop off. As you’ve worked on the piece you have most likely removed sections that seem non-essential. You will probably also have pruned those wasteful phrases that don’t add much: “In the majority of instances”, “in spite of the fact that”, “under the circumstances” and so on. But if you haven’t, do it now.

step two: pause and focus

Clear your head and just think exactly what you want readers to get out of this piece. Be realistic and be precise. People are not really likely to change their thinking or behaviour radically because of what you’ve written. Nor can they absorb more than one or two new ideas, especially if they’re complex. Your piece may include elements for interest or entertainment. But really, what is it aiming to do? Define it in a sentence or two and keep focused on it.

step three: cut sections that aren’t central

Now go through and start deleting whole sentences and paragraphs that are not directly contributing to that focus. Material may be good and interesting, but if it’s not core it has to go.

Eradicate anything else—anecdotes, quotations or illustrations—that is a bit thin or not entirely pulling its weight. Losing weaker material strengthens what remains.

Be ruthless with sections or phrases that you particularly like. It’s very likely that your fondness for them may be clouding your judgement. Yes, you like them. But do they earn their space, given that your readers have plenty of other things to do, and plenty of other things to read?


Embolden yourself as you cut by remembering the following.

  • You are writing for the reader, not to please yourself, colleagues, friends, family or management.
  • You do not have to say everything you know on a topic. That’s an absurd aim. Leaving readers wanting to know more is better than wearying them with so much that they lose heart.
  • You can keep what you cut for another piece. You’re not losing anything or wasting time or work. The sections you’ve cut evolved during a necessary part of the writing process. They played their part. Leaving them out makes the piece better.

myth busting—why non-profits shouldn’t be tempted

Snake with raised head

It’s not hard to understand the attractions of myth busting. That’s why this kind of thing is common among non-profits:

  • Busted—five grant-writing myths
  • Myth-busting facts about refugees and asylum seekers
  • Five myths about financial capability dispelled
  • Challenging myths about low income families

Such pieces can be a joy to write. (This, incidentally, should be a warning in itself. When writers are enjoying themselves, readers may not be.) All you have to do is identify the misconceptions you think readers have, and then refute them. You can cover a range of topics, without the bother of providing logical flow between subsections. Your points can vary in length and bring in almost any aspect of the issue. You can add punchy statistics, without getting bogged down in context. The structure is free and easy, but looks ordered and planned. And it’s appealing to readers. Who can resist reading about where people go wrong?

But beware. There are deep and treacherous pitfalls here for a communicator.

There’s a trick where you say to someone, “Don’t think of elephants”. They instantly think of elephants. It’s impossible not to. Well, the trick works with more complex and subtle ideas too, and when you don’t want it to. Saying “don’t think of refugees as scroungers” is really just an invitation to associate refugees with scrounging. Yes, there’s a “don’t” there. So what? There’s a “don’t” in “don’t think of elephants”.  Both negatives are ineffective. You have strengthened the association in people’s minds between scroungers and refugees. That’s not very clever, is it?

Here are some more, grabbed at random, from genuine campaigns:

  • Myth: “Most people on benefits are fiddling the system”.
  • Myth: “You get a council house if you’re pregnant or have a baby.”
  • Myth: “Social tenants are subsidised by the tax payer.”
  • Myth: “Pagerank is the most important thing in SEO.”

I try to imagine myself advising these clients.

Me: “If you believe something to be harmful nonsense, are you sure it’s a good idea to write it down, format it in bold type as a subheading and publish it?”
Client: “Hmm. I see where you’re coming from. Thanks for the tip. Our comms team don’t agree though. There are some important misconceptions out there that we need to challenge.”

My reply is that myth busting is a flawed way to challenge readers’ misconceptions. It can be seen as arrogant and dismissive. Good communication demonstrates a element of empathy. Myth busting shows no attention to readers’ concerns. It amounts to nothing more than telling people they are wrong. It’s bad manners, bad education, and doesn’t work. Someone who thinks people on benefits cheat the system, or that people get pregnant to be rehoused, won’t be magically persuaded otherwise by a verbal lecture from you. Sorry if that disappoints, but it’s true. Throwing in a few well-selected statistics isn’t a clincher.

Many years ago we took our children to London zoo. In the reptile house an education officer was showing off snakes, letting visitors stroke them. He told me, “Visitors come though the entrance thinking that snakes are cold and slimy. We talk and they touch the snake and find it’s dry and warm. Then they walk on. By the time they get to the exit door they’ve gone back to thinking snakes are cold and slimy.”

If you really want to change people’s minds, you need a subtler, better thought-out approach than just telling them that what they currently believe is wrong.

how to reduce gobbledygook

Glass window with unicef logo etching

Improving a piece of writing isn’t always about tinkering with words and sentences. Sometimes you need to take a step back and start again. Here I describe what my approach would be to written material that just isn’t working.

Start with a challenge. Read the following sentence and say what it means. Tell someone else, in your own words, what the central point is.

Upstream policy work, within a rights and gender framework, has generated increasing engagement with, and capacity-building of, civil society, enabling citizens to exercise their rights to participate in public policy decisions.

Not easy, is it?

It would be cheering to think that this is a hastily-written first draft, soon discarded. Sadly, it’s live and prominent on the website of a humanitarian intergovernmental organisation.

Here’s another sentence, which reveals the source:

Building on field experience and working in alliance with other United Nations agencies, UNICEF collaborates with partners to stimulate dialogue around macrolevel policies that guide national frameworks, legislative reform and budgetary allocations affecting children and families.

This sort of writing doesn’t call for a light edit. Something more radical is required. If I were working on it I’d request a conversation with the client. I’d try to get them to tell me what they really want to say. I’d explain that this style of writing communicates very little, except perhaps as a reminder to insiders of what they already know. They are probably not the target readership.

Once we’d established some trust, I’d ask a lot of specific “outsider” questions, probing things they take for granted. Why do you work within a rights and gender framework? What happens when citizens participate in public policy decisions? How do you stimulate dialogue?

I’d also ask some unexpected general questions. What surprises people when they first come across Unicef’s work? What is the department’s greatest achievement? What is its greatest headache?

If I’m very unlucky, this may produce more of the same and little of genuine interest. If so, as a damage limitation strategy I’d suggest presenting key points as a list. It still won’t communicate much, but at least readers will be able to see it at a glance and won’t waste so much time. It would be punchier, less buried in abstract words and long sentences.

More likely, the conversation will produce a good quarry of quite different material. It won’t take long, either. This is not hard, slow, introspective work. People tend to give answers to these kinds of questions quickly and intuitively. They know why they are doing the work. They just don’t often get a chance to explain it to anyone else. When they do, they often feel re-oriented and re-committed to their work, their passion renewed. That’s a useful by-product of talking to an outsider.

I can then use that quarry of material to produce something that reflects the work and the driving force behind it. I’d write a descriptive, varied, vivid and memorable summary of Unicef’s policy work. Very importantly, it would reflect the humanity of the organisation. As politicians say, that’s an aspiration not a firm promise. But the result should certainly be more readable than the quotations above.

why charities shouldn’t have lists of banned words

Typescript with amendments and nibbed pen

“We prefer not to use the word celebrity”, a fundraiser for a major NGO told me some time ago. I’d used the phrase “celebrity supporters” in a magazine I was editing for the charity. The charity made much use of high-profile celebrities. She wanted it changed.

What can we use instead? Something like, “our friends and supporters from the worlds of music, fashion, sport and media”, was her suggestion.

That’s catchy, I thought. But I was intrigued by her motivation. What was she trying to do? It turned out that she was putting into practice a writing principle that was in vogue then, as now: it is wrong to describe people, particularly stakeholders, in ways that they’re not happy with.

It’s a good principle. It’s right to be thoughtful. Consistency and integrity matter. If people you work with don’t like being described as victims, or lumped together as “the disabled” or “the elderly”, then you don’t do it. From the fundraiser’s point of view, it’s not hard to imagine a celebrity saying one day that they see themselves as an individual who is personally very committed to the charity’s work, and doesn’t like being referred to as just another sleb. Even if the word is spelt out in full.

But sometimes good principles clash with other principles, and a choice has to be made. In this case, her preferred solution clashed, in my view, with the very good principle of avoiding sounding convoluted, naff and precious. It was also close to violating the principle of intelligibility. There’s no point in using words that readers can’t understand. If you write in a secret code, you’re not communicating, however happy it makes your stakeholders.

I’ve heard people argue that charities should have lists of banned words for their written communication. I’d be very cautious about this. If people writing for your organisation need to be told not to use the kind of words you might have on a banned list – racist words, non-inclusive language or derogatory terms for disabled people, for instance – then you have a problem with your communicators that isn’t going to be cured by producing a list.

If your list goes beyond the obviously offensive and includes terms that some of your stakeholders don’t much like, you are potentially on a collision course. How do you choose between those of your beneficiaries who prefer the term “disabled people” and those who prefer “people with disabilities”? You might decide not to use the phrase “spare room subsidy”, figuring that “bedroom tax” is widely understood and more honest. But that’s inept if you are communicating with a member of the current government whom you want help from. If you never allow yourself a short form but always use the full phrase “refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants”, some of your target audience will never get to the end of your piece. What’s that achieved?

concrete not abstract

Pen resting on notebook

Abstract writing is the curse of charities and non-profits. It clogs up the brain, numbing thought and blocking understanding. It’s this kind of thing:

  •  building on existing partnerships across all sectors.
  •  key stakeholder engagement at the levels of policy, procedures and practice.
  •  transforming local services and making institutions more responsive to the needs of their communities.
  •  promoting the contribution to related issues including community safety, community involvement, affordable warmth, good health and social care.

It might sound like the way everyone else writes – formal, neutral and therefore professional. It may be free from grammatical errors. But it is hopeless at communicating anything. There is nothing for the reader’s mind to hold onto.

If you want people to be struck by what you are saying and remember it, you need words that are vivid and memorable. Those words are much more likely to be concrete than abstract. What is the difference?

A simple test is to ask whether you, and the reader, can visualise this. Does it bring a concrete image to mind? Is it something you can, with imagination, see, taste, smell, touch or hear? If you can, it is concrete.

  • The local authority is abstract. A named councillor is concrete.
  • Community engagement is abstract. A summer barbecue is concrete.
  • Lack of resources is abstract. A broken boiler we can’t afford to fix is concrete.

People are often aware of how abstraction deadens writing. Their response is understandable: “We need some case studies, some examples, something tangible that will bring it alive for readers.”

The theory is sound. Sadly, the tendency to abstraction is so entrenched that it spreads everywhere. I’ve seen case studies with sentences like:

  •  several of those contacted reported experiencing continence-management issues.
  •  the work of the group has had a definite positive impact on community spirit.
  •  the project used creative consultation techniques to support regeneration.

The problem is in the choice of words, the writing style, not the ostensible form.

It takes confidence, and some ingenuity, to recast this mind-numbing language into something detailed, precise and memorable. Writing in a different style can meet organisational resistance. There’s the technical challenge of determining what parts of the material are best told in a concrete, detailed way. And there may well be a knowledge gap – you can’t give examples if you don’t have any.

None of this is easy. But my experiencing of coaching is that people improve dramatically simply by giving themselves permission to write more vividly.

writing too soon

Olympups trip focusing ring

Remember the wise words about not leaving writing too late? The opposite problem exists too. Sometimes people start writing too early. If you are suffering from this, you tend to say things like:

  • “It’s just not going right.”
  • “I don’t know why it’s so hard.”
  • “It’s going round in circles.”
  • “I really don’t know where I am with it.”

Those symptoms tend to add up to one thing. You haven’t worked out what you want to say. Perhaps your brief isn’t clear enough. You might lack focus, be trying to do two or more incompatible things, for different audiences. Perhaps you haven’t done enough research.

Try this. Find someone who is not associated with the project, but is prepared to listen to you talk about it. If they are typical of your target reader, that would be excellent. Now explain to them in simple language what your writing project is about. Who is it for? What will they get out of it?

If you cannot do that, simply, quickly and with confidence, you are not ready to start writing. As I say to people I’m coaching, you don’t have a writing problem. You have a knowledge problem. The remedy is different.