On one of the first days of third grade, my daughter brought home an assignment called “small moments.” Her task was to fill a piece of paper with ideas she could later turn into focused, vivid narratives. “Your summer vacation” is a big, boring, vague subject. But the time you braved the roller coaster, swam all the way to the dock, lost three teeth in four days, saw your first Broadway musical, hosted a cookout for the whole neighborhood, watched the Red Sox crush the Diamondbacks – those thin slices of experience are much easier to turn into rich, engaging stories.
I love this assignment.
Finding a topic to write about and focusing on the details that make it interesting are among the hardest tasks for writers, especially new writers or reluctant ones. The “small moments” strategy is valuable, whether you’re a third-grader or a marketer staring down a blank content calendar. And at a time when writing is a critical part of creating business relationships, it helps to have a few tricks that get you typing, especially if you’ve been quick to say, “I hate writing.”
I’ve run across a lot of folks who say that. In a career focused on word craft, I’ve taught high school English to teenagers who hated writing (and many other things – ah, adolescence.) I’ve taught composition to adult college students who hated writing, and blamed it for slowing down their careers. I’ve coached executives – experts in engineering and technology – who don’t feel so confident when it comes to writing.
These are a few of the tips I’ve shared over the years to help those self-identified haters feel a little more love toward their own writing assignments:
1. Remember: “There is no one alive who is youer than you.”
If you want to create real thought leadership content with a bold point of view, heed these wise words from Dr. Seuss. You need to be at the center of your writing process. Even if someone else polishes your rough drafts – or even ghost writes for you – you still need to be the youest you in the written content that carries your byline. Participate as much as you can to make sure the final outcome reflects YOU.
2. Find an inquisitive colleague.
The corporate equivalent of the small moments assignment might be a sit-down with someone who asks great questions. Find a colleague or business partner who can push you to talk about the issues that get you excited. Record the conversation. Make a list of potential headlines based on the discussion, and then start writing to one of those topics.
3. Write a “shitty first draft.”
This advice comes from Anne Lamott’s guide for writers, “Bird by Bird.” Get something down, Lamott says – anything. Don’t judge yourself. Just type – and then fix it up later. This idea of the “down” draft and the “up” draft can be freeing. Once you think you’ve cleaned up as much as you can, go back to your inquisitive colleague and have her ask more questions about any holes she sees in your draft.
4. Go for less.
Another way to clean up a “down draft” is by peeling stuff out of it:
Delete some adjectives and adverbs. They can muck up an otherwise clear sentence.
Swap out vague nouns and verbs. Choose specific ones.
Take out those gerunds – the “ing” verbs – and use active verbs instead.
Kill your exclamation points. (If your words don’t convey excitement, that lazy piece of punctuation won’t convince anyone.)
5. Use your printer.
If you’ve been cleaning up your draft but the flow feels off, print it. Cut the hard copy up into sections. Move the sections around and look at them to see the best way to put that puzzle back together.
6. Do it again.
Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” If you’re bought into the idea that writing is a key part of leading (and is even essential for productivity), don’t skip over this advice. There’s only one way to get better. Do it again. Then do it some more. And some more. And some more.