Writing at work causes so much stress. So many questions. So much doubt.
Is this comma in the right place? Is that a run-on sentence? Do you need “who” or “whom”? If you click “send” now, how long until everyone discovers just how verbally clueless you really are?
Style and accuracy do matter. A single typo can land your message in the trash bin, and bad grammar can quash your credibility. But the more you fret and obsess over those details, the more likely you are to kill the very qualities a writer needs most: confidence and creativity.
So relax a little. Here are four things you can stop worrying about when you write.
1. Stop trying to get it right the first time.
Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be good. It just needs to be done.
The moment you start analyzing the quality of your writing—second-guessing and correcting your work—is the moment you switch off your creativity. You’re not writing anymore; you’re editing. Editing is an act of judgment, not creativity.
Editing too soon is premature evaluation. It’s invasion of your own creative space. Don’t do it.
Let yourself write a long, rambling mess of ideas. Don’t stop until you’ve run out of things to say. Once you’ve exhausted your creative mind, take a break. Later, you can and should return to the page with a red pen and a critical eye. Correct spelling, insert commas, reorganize points and make your message pretty. This is the mission of your second draft (and third, and fourth and fifth)—never your first.
2. Stop composing messages in order.
As long as you’re liberating your creativity, free yourself from sequential order, too. This applies to the way you draft a message and the way you deliver it.
Opening lines can be the hardest to write. Paralyzing, even. But no one is insisting that you compose your message in order. If you’re stuck on the introduction, skip it. Start in the middle. Write the ending first. Begin with whatever comes easiest, so you can build momentum.
Once you have all the pieces on the page, think carefully about what belongs on top. Suppose your reader spends just 10 seconds looking at your message. Is your priority to share rationale or make a recommendation? To explain background or call for action? Spoiler alert: Short attention spans don’t survive dramatic builds and epic chronologies. Make your point fast and up front.
3. Stop cranking out paragraphs.
Here’s what a page full of paragraphs says to the busy reader: “Close the door and clear your calendar, because I have a lot to say. To decipher this message, you’re going to need time, focus and patience. Brace yourself, because this reading is work.”
The busy reader’s likely response? “Maybe later,” “No thank you” or “No effing way!”
If you want to capture and keep attention, ditch your allegiance to the five-sentence paragraphs of fifth-grade composition (topic sentence, three supporting sentences, summary sentence). Instead, portion your message into small pieces the reader can see and consume at a glance:
- Let one powerful sentence—like a call to action—stand alone.
- Give headlines that reveal the gist of your message.
- Organize groups of ideas (features, reasons, advantages, etc.) in bulleted lists.
- Outline step-by-step instructions in numbered lists.
Better yet, replace at least some of your words with pictures. Our brains can process images 60,000 times faster than text, and ourminds are more likely to retain visual than verbal information. That’s why kittens and infographics are winning the internet.