By Cliff Hebard, Principal Consultant, Hebard & Associates Corporate Learning Systems, LLC
Anyone can write.
Unconvinced? Please hear me out. I’m a business/commercial writer, facilitator, and sometime journalism instructor, speaking from that experience.
“I’m no writer,” many of my students and workshop participants insist, making it sound like a confession. “I got C-minuses.”
Maybe so, but in a larger sense, it’s just not true.
If you can think, you can write.
You may not be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald or the next James Joyce. Join the crowd! There’s such a thing as literary genius, and that’s a different topic.
Note to stuffier language purists, cursors poised, all too prepared to argue the point—any point—to preserve the Mother Tongue: Thanks, seriously, for your diligence. I’m suggesting not that many of the finer points of writing have somehow lost their meaning, but that needless perfectionism weakens writing as a tool.
I was a copy editor for a long time. Illegal substitution of semi-colons for commas on my watch; big mistake.
Perhaps you, the kid who got C-minuses, won’t send many semi-colons into oblivion. No matter. You can write clear, useful sentences and paragraphs and memos and e-mails and reports and the rest.
And if it’s left up to me, you will. It’s a tool. Using it is a skill. You can improve. You can write!
Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Wombats, for one. And toasters. That’s about it.
So it’s sad to see how many of you seem to have given up. You write, and talk about your writing, as if our great language does not quite belong to you.
I admire schoolteachers, and especially English teachers. My best was Mr. Roderick, whose seventh-grade English class began, for almost two weeks, with his reading “Moby Dick” aloud to a rapt roomful of otherwise untamed 12- and 13-year-olds. Herman Melville helped a bit, too.
I recommend it. And Melville.
Mr. Roderick was a gift. Countless English and other teachers inspire their students today the way he did so long ago, in that worn old junior high school in Hamburg, NY. Anyone, in fact, who shoulders the schoolteacher’s burden today deserves thanks. I come to praise great teachers, not to bury them.
It’s still a shame that so many of you departed your own classrooms believing you can’t write. And part of the cause seems clear:
Every year back then you learned bigger words, more complicated grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage—and eventually, how to assemble them all into 10,000-word term papers with exactingly formatted margins and spacing and footnotes…and the rest.
You needed to learn. Be grateful your teachers did their job, letting you in on that wonderfully rich, ever-changing code: English. Thanks again, Mr. Roderick. Your teaching lives.
But many of us, and I do mean us, somehow left school without the following philosophy of writing:
We write to get information from Point A to Point B. That’s the philosophy.
Exceptions include public relations, political rhetoric, adulterers’ denials, executives’ explanations of nine-figure salaries…and, of course, advocacy has its place.
But most of the time we write to make a point. Doing so simply and clearly only makes sense. The shortest path from Point A to Point B is a straight line.
Think of your admittedly incomplete command of English this way:
Have you ever driven a car anywhere before mastering all its internal intricacies—fuel injection, positraction, gear ratios, and all that? You’re up to date on compression levels, oil viscosity, and the alloy composition of your engine block, right? Of course, you are.
Or perhaps not. And so it is with writing.
Most of the time you can operate the language well enough, without having first mastered every one of its many subtleties. Driving resembles writing only in principle, but the principle is big enough for both.
Another article will detail my recommendations, summarized here as a two-step approach:
“Treat writing as a process” means:
Will these steps solve all your writing problems? Yes, absolutely.
Actually, no. Nothing will solve all of a writer’s problems. Ask any writer. But these two steps can simplify matters, and get you going.
Two more tips:
1. “Write for your audience,” above, means avoiding specialized language only experts understand, such as:
The vulnerability is caused due to a boundary error in Dec2Rar.dll, when copying data based on the length field in the sub-block headers of a RAR archive. This can be exploited to cause a heap-based buffer overflow and may allow arbitrary code execution when a malicious RAR archive is scanned.
If you’re beset by RAR archives and/or by heap-based buffer overflows, this paragraph will be useful—to all three of you, and also to the technically trained folks who could, I hope, tell us what those two sentences mean.
The moral: Ruthlessly hunt down and kill terminology your readers won’t understand.
2. When you edit, tune in to phrases that turn meaning on its head. You do not want to make the mistake so obvious in these alleged excerpts from instruction manuals and packaging:
I do not believe elaboration is needed, and hope you agree.
Finally, one concession: Some people can’t write, it’s true.
They never gave themselves the chance.
And neither did some of you.
No matter how mind-numbing you found Miss Thistlebottom’s endless classes in Principles of Punctuation, Usage and Syntax III, you can write! Trust me on that. Miss Thistlebottom gave you some of the many keys to the code, but you needn’t memorize every one.
However, you must practice. So take the chance. Experiment! Forget the big lie that “I can’t write” and give yourself the opportunity you deserve. More than once, OK?
Because anyone can write.
Cliff Hebard, M.B.A., is a freelance and technical writer, and principal consultant at Hebard & Associates Corporate Learning Systems, LLC, a training and writing consultancy in Charlotte, NC.