As an inter-galactically famous E-Newsletter expert, one of the three questions I get asked most often is, “How can I make the process of writing easier?”
(The other two questions are, “How long should our newsletter be?” and “Hey there handsome, can I buy you a drink?”)
And so with that in mind, today’s newsletter focuses on one important idea. An idea that if understood and applied will not just make the process easier, it will make the end product a whole lot better too.
I call it the “What’s this about?” rule of writing.
Here’s the idea…
One of my joys in life is helping businesspeople communicate better with the outside world. And whether that means interviewing someone and putting it down in written form for them, or coaching someone in how to do it themselves, I always begin by asking the same question: “Where’s my check?”
Ha ha! I’m kidding. I begin by asking “What’s this about?”
Earlier this week, for example, I was on the phone with a new client to discuss an upcoming newsletter. So I asked, WTA?
He didn’t quite hear me though, because he immediately dove down deep (his company is in health care) and started saying things like “clinical non-emergent impediment cycles” and “single payer insured triage classifications.”
I know, I had no idea what he was talking about either. So I apologized for not understanding and asked him again, “Tell me in really simple terms, what’s this about?”
He still didn’t hear me. This time he said something like, “re-calcified hippopotamus gryffindors.”
I had no clue. So I kept asking. To his credit, he kept answering.
Back and forth we went for another fifteen grueling minutes until finally, we were able to strip away the jargon and the confusion and pinpoint the clear, simple idea within that day’s newsletter. We had finally answered, “What’s this about?”
From there it was relative easy and completely straightforward. Sure, I needed a lot more information from him in order to write 800 words on the topic – but it wasn’t painful. Once we uncovered the central point of what we were trying to communicate, the rest was just filling in the details.
Writing’s a funny thing. I think that maybe because it’s so uncomfortable for people, many of us just dive in and start pounding away at the keyboard in the hope that something good will come out the other end.
It rarely does. At least not if the outcome you want is a quality piece with minimal effort.
Think about your writing relative to other, non-writing projects you take on.
You wouldn’t build a house by just randomly nailing together a pile of materials. You wouldn’t take a vacation by just showing up at the airport and getting on the first plane to anywhere. Even making breakfast effectively involves more than simply grabbing whatever you can find in the kitchen and tossing it in the toaster.
In all three cases, you first figure out what you’re trying to accomplish.
Writing’s the same way. It’s less a magical process than it is a deliberate approach to sharing a message. And without a clear answer to the simple “What’s this about?” question, your output will be both painful and lousy.
So here’s what I recommend. The next time you have something – anything – to write, and before you put your hands on the keyboard, take the time to answer the WTA question. When you can explain it in a single sentence – and in words that a fifth grader could understand – you’re ready.
- How time away from the office can lead to better decision making
- What healthcare can learn from baseball in the presentation of data
- Four things to look for when reviewing a contract
Simple, clear, pain-free.
Here’s the bottom line. What makes writing so arduous is not that you don’t know enough words or have enough knowledge. You’ve got a nearly unlimited supply of both.
The struggle comes from trying to string together sentences before you’ve got a really, really, REALLY clear handle on where you’re going. It’s the absence of clarity that causes the pain, not to mention all the hours (days?) required after the fact to unravel the mess.
Take the time first to unearth the simple point – the single thread – that runs through the piece from start to finish. Then watch as the words flow more easily.
You can buy me that drink any time now.