I admit that I don’t watch, or read, large amounts on improving my writing1, thinking that the most important factor is just doing more of it. This video by University of Chicago writing program leader Larry McEnerney, contains a few important lessons that I hadn’t even considered before, and are worth remembering, even if you’re not writing in academia.
If you’ve got the time, watch, or perhaps listen, to the video yourself.
First; always remember your audience. They are the people you’re writing to, and you have to understand how what you’re writing is creating value for them. What problem does it solve, what issue does it address? This is the least surprising of the points made, but still the most important.
This is emphasised by pointing out that there are, in academia, but also in other technical fields, two kinds of writing. The writing the author does themselves to organise their thoughts, to help them think, and then the writing to communicate the conclusions of that work, and what it means, and hopefully how important it is. These two types shouldn’t be confused, but often are, as many people are only used to doing the first kind. (Can you tell which type this blog is?)
The second point that struck me, and I’d never considered, is that almost all of the writing I have done in my life, someone has be paid to read it. They may have cared as well, but teachers at school and university didn’t decide to read what I’d written because they wanted to, they were, in some form, obliged to do so.
This also leads to a particular kind of writing, where you are trying to demonstrate that you have understood something they have taught you. You are not trying to teach them something new, to change their way of thinking or understanding, just revealing what you’re absorbed.
In my case, and many people who don’t write for an external or paying audience, this is effectively still the case. I have colleagues who on some level have to read what I write; either to review it, learn from it, or act on it, because they are paid to.
Lastly: use the right code. I think the use of the word “code” makes this tip sound slightly mystical, all it means is to use the same vocabulary as the audience, or community, that you’re writing for. Any community will have it’s own terms and definitions; academic, corporate or social. It’s important to ensure that you are then speaking using the same jargon, even it that sometimes feels forced, as that is what will make you understood, especially when speaking to the community’s leaders and power brokers.
If you work in a multinational company, you will also experience this, especially if the common language is not the first language of many. You end up with slightly strange expressions and terms that a native English speaker would not use, but are widely used. If the goal is to be understood, then sometimes you have to grit your teeth and use these unnatural sounding expressions, as everyone comprehends them.
Oh, and you notice that all the things he talks about, he does while giving the lecture?
Addendum 2020: Interview with Larry McEnerney on his retirement.
Yes, you’re very smart and funny whoever shouted “We can tell” at the back there. ↩︎