Writing starts way before you put letters to a page. It involves processes like critical thinking, communication and creativity. Even if writing feels like pulling teeth, you can apply the principles of writing to many facets of your day-to-day life. Here’s how.
Show, Don’t Tell
Good writers use techniques like description and dialogue to show the reader what characters are thinking and feeling. For example, instead of telling the reader “Jim was sad”, a writer might describe how “Jenny saw Jim crying in the bathroom” or how “Jim walked with his shoulders slouched and head bowed” (Sidebar: I am clearly not a professional novelist).
Similarly, when you plan to share an idea, thought or feeling with someone, think about how you can show it to them. For example, if you’re about to thank someone, show them your gratitude by writing a letter, or a card, or expressing yourself through a gift, in addition to saying “Thank you.”
If you’re trying to convince someone of something, even if you can’t complete an entire task to express yourself, do a little bit of the work to get started so to make a stronger impression on them. People will take your message more seriously when the evidence is right in front of them.
Simplicity Is Better than Flowery
Put the thesaurus away. Stop looking for synonyms in your word processor. Contrary to what you might think, longer words don’t make you sound or look smarter. Author Stephen King writes in his memoir On Writing:
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.
You’ve probably read someone’s essay before where you cringed or frowned at their excessive language. No matter how well you think you integrate your fancy words into your essay or emails, other people will have similar reactions when you go thesaurus diving.
Keep this in mind as you move through life as well. You’d be more effective communicating your ideas if you present them clearly, one at a time — even for ones that seem more overwhelming, like relationship questions, job interview questions or anything else. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel as you approach each problem.
Read a Lot, Learn from Everything
You can learn something from everyone and everything. Sometimes, it’s what not to do (and unfortunately, sometimes you’re learning those lessons from yourself). Writer and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner suggests:
Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Read and explore all types of media in order to refine your perspective. This wider range of ideas also exposes your brain, a connection machine, to new nodes and types of information. You’ll become more creative.
You can take this advice both literally and figuratively, as it expands beyond books. Reading is primarily about acquiring information, but you don’t just acquire information from books and writing. You can acquire information from the events unfolding in front of you, from conversations, from podcasts and many other sources. So “read” those carefully as well. Don’t avoid small talk and light banter. Talk to as many different people as you like. Invest your time and money to seeing the world.
I used to only read cheerful books, and watch fun TV shows and movies. I didn’t think it made sense to invest hours of my life into media that would leave me feeling glum. However, sadness, rage and anxiety are all parts of the human experience. The events that cause these feelings could happen in your real life at any time. Experiencing these emotions is crucial to getting a better grasp on joy, peace and excitement.
Focus by Learning What Not to Do
A large part of writing involves learning what not to say, or what to remove instead of what to include. Trying to do everything is futile. Instead, you have to learn which parts of your life are essential, and which ones you don’t have to put as much time or energy into. Whenever you say yes to something, you’re also implicitly saying no to something else — either in the present or in the future. Make sure that what you’re giving up is worth it. Writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag writes in one of her diaries:
There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.
This advice also applies at an individual productivity level — say no to other tasks and focus on one. Author Henry Miller understood the importance of singletasking, and recommends that writers “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”
The thought of your team or office reading your work could paralyse you as you draft up an important email or memo. You’re a busy person. Break your hesitance by channeling your inner Kurt Vonnegut, who advises: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” From a writing context, pretend you’re writing to your best friend at work (but be sure to clean up anything too honest when you edit).
Show other people your ideas to make stronger impressions. Avoid dressing up your language, and write like how you would talk. Learn from everything and expand your mind. Most importantly, buckle down and focus to get more important things done.