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How to Write Like a Professional

Image via Creative Commons, Nana B. Agyei’s Flickr photostream. (Source)

As part of your job (or your personal life), you’ll sometimes have to write more than a simple email.

Chances are, you put off doing the writing for as long as possible. Writing can be incredibly hard, especially if it’s something you feel that you’re not very good at. You might have no idea where to begin.

Here’s how to make it a whole lot easier – by following what the professionals do.

Step #1: Understand Your Purpose
What’s the point of your writing?

Let’s say you’re working on a leaflet for a community organization. Are you trying to:

  • Raise awareness of a particular issue?
  • Encourage residents to come to a meeting?
  • Persuade people to sign a petition?

…or something else entirely?

If you’re not clear what the purpose of your writing is, then find someone who can help explain it. Don’t accept “well, we figured we should have a leaflet” or “our company website needs a blog”. Get a clear sense of what the goal is.

Even on simple, personal tasks, it’s worth writing down a few words summarizing the purpose.

  • I’m writing this email to ask for a reference.
  • I’m writing this letter because I need a faulty product replaced.

Step #2: Know Your Audience
Who is going to read this piece of writing?

The way in which you write needs to be tailored to your readers. For instance, if you were writing a software guide for use within your IT company, you probably won’t need to spell things out too much for your colleagues. If you’re writing a guide for your company’s clients, though, you’ll need to make sure that you avoid technical jargon.

Your audience might be:

  • Highly educated … or barely literate
  • Very young … or very old
  • Receptive to your message … or hostile towards it
  • Experts in this area … or complete beginners

The needs of your audience will influence every aspect of your writing: the length, style, content and even the presentation.

Once you’re confident about your purpose and audience, you can move on to the actual writing…

Step #3: Create an Outline
Talk to any professional writer and they’ll almost certainly tell you that they plan out what they’re going to write before they get started – especially on larger or more complex projects.

An outline helps you to organize your thoughts before you begin. It makes the writing process much easier by giving you a framework.

If you’re struggling with your outline, try using these words as prompts:

  • What?
  • Who?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

(You won’t necessarily need all of them for every outline.)

Outlines are useful even for short pieces. Let’s say you’ve been asked to write a short article for a community newsletter to encourage residents to use the recycling facilities. Your outline might look like this:

  • Explain where residents can recycle
  • Remind them why recycling matters, giving some specific statistics
  • Tell them who they can contact for further details

Step #4: Start Writing
For many people, this is the really tough bit! You might feel like your mind goes blank when you sit down to write, and you may struggle for hours to manage just a few sentences.

It doesn’t need to be that tough. Remember that writing is just a form of communication – like speaking. And remember that you can always go back and change what you write later; you’ll have the chance to redraft.

Imagine that you’re speaking to someone in your intended audience – perhaps one of your customers. How would you express yourself? What words would you use?

Some people find it helpful to use speech-recognition software. Others like to write as though they’re emailing a specific person.

If you’re still struggling to get going, try giving yourself a time limit. See how much you can write in just 30 minutes. Often, getting started is the hardest part (and yes, professional writers find it tough too)!

Step #5: Edit Your First Draft
No-one’s writing comes out perfect first time. Your draft will need some editing.

When you edit, don’t just check for spelling mistakes. Read through your finished piece and ask yourself:

  • Is there anything missing?
  • Have I included anything superfluous?
  • Do all my sentences flow clearly? (You might want to try reading the piece aloud.)
  • Have I used any words that aren’t appropriate for my audience? (e.g. too formal, too informal, too technical)

Watch out for typos – especially ones that spell-check won’t pick up, like missing words or homonyms (words that sound the same but that are spelled differently).

If you can, ask someone else to read your piece too. They might be able to spot areas of confusion that you’ve missed, or mistakes that you didn’t spot.

And that’s it! You should have a finished, polished piece of writing – with, hopefully, a minimum of stress.

If you’re a writer (whether professionally or not), what tips would you add?

Written on 10/12/2011 by Ali Luke. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Photo Credit: peteoshea
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