You wouldn’t hire a high school biology teacher to remove your appendix. Don’t expect a novice to produce professional-quality writing.
My pal Bill Roorbach is an exceptional storyteller. He is descriptive yet concise on the page, and perfectly meandering when he shares a story over a beer.
There is one particular story Bill has told for years, and I often think of it whenever talk turns to good writing and what it means to write well. Bill’s tale has become something of an urban legend, and it has been retold at literary conferences and parties across the country.
The short version goes like this: Bill is at a literary cocktail party. A surgeon approaches Bill and tells him she was so inspired by his lovely, understated memoir Summers with Juliet that she is going to take a six-month sabbatical to write her own book. Bill politely thanks her; this isn’t the first time he has heard such cavalier pronouncements about writing.
“You know, you’ve inspired me!” Bill suddenly blurts out, his courage no doubt girded by the cold liquor in his tumbler. “I’m going to take six months off and become a surgeon like you.”
Confused and unamused, the surgeon walks away.
Now, Bill’s response was, of course, pitch-perfect, tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. But it points out how casually many people talk about the hard-earned craft of writing. While it’s commonly accepted that every skill set—be it surgery or stonemasonry—requires practice, hard-won expertise, and years of experience, why do we keep forgetting this is also true of writing?
No one assumes that just because they own a gleaming set of wrenches they are proficient auto mechanics. We accept that we are enthusiastic amateurs fumbling our way through a Sunday afternoon under the hood. So why is it that so many people with a word-processing program fancy themselves wordsmiths?
The fact that most of us can write does not necessarily mean that we are all
In a wrld whr ths knd of mssg hs bcom accptbl, good writing is actually more appreciated and more important than ever. Good writing is good communication—and just about everything in today’s small, flat world is about communication. Just consider the sheer volume of writing used to communicate a business: website content, print materials, advertising, and, yes, gobs of email. Good writing is good business, and good leaders value genuine expertise, invest in their most important assets, and never assume there’s no room for improvement. Whether it’s in our relationships or our professions, it’s never wise to take something important for granted.
While mechanics work in the esoteric language of carburetors and exhaust systems, a writer’s tools are the 26 letters and 14 common punctuation marks that make up the English language. But here’s how that equation looks in literary terms: 26 + 14 = an infinitude of possible expressions.
All of this is to say, simply, that written language is slippery. The ability to speak well is not the same as writing well. Casual emails, texts, and Facebook posts are not professional-grade writing. And getting someone to pay attention to your product or service or cause, in a world filled with noise and distractions, is an elusive art. Yet if we accept a few fundamental facts, respect the written word, and strive for improvement, we can all become better communicators.
1) Make good writing a priority, not an afterthought. Recognize that great businesses and organizations are built on great communication.
2) Invest in your written communications. Build it into your budget. Take time to get it right. Refine and improve your writing over time.
3) Don’t do it alone. Take what you have, print it out, and give it to friends, colleagues, or clients for their feedback. Good writing never occurs in a vacuum.
4) Always pass it by a professional! If you can’t afford a professional copywriter for your print materials or online content, for example, work with an experienced editor or proofreader. Professionals see things that novices overlook.
5) Remember that bad writing is bad business. Typos, ungrammatical sentences, or missing words imply carelessness and substandard quality. And confusing or sloppy prose is as disrespectful to readers as rudeness is during a conversation.
6) Never, ever, under any circumstances, use the typeface Comic Sans.
Good writing is, at its very best, invisible. Like great typography and great architecture, even when you’re not fully aware of good writing, you are imbued with a sense of ease and calm. Nothing jars, clanks, or confuses. Good writing flows, lures you in, and exhilarates.
The surgeon Bill Roorbach met at a cocktail party was correct in one sense: Nearly everyone can write. But it’s careless to assume that everyone can write well. So what’s one to do?
When your car engine is smoking, you take it to the shop. When your kitchen sink is leaking, you hire a plumber. So when dealing with something as crucial as the language you are using to describe your business, services, mission, or cause, hire a writer.
We’re out here, still awake in the predawn hours, sleepless over a semicolon or sloppy adjective. We’re obsessing over a typo or stray comma the way a great CFO obsesses over a balance sheet. So, please, hire a writer. Either that, or my pal Bill is going to start performing surgery.
Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. His website is www.joshuabodwell.com.