Whether we like it or not, we all have to write for a living, regardless of our respective job scopes. It could be a Slack message, an email, a business proposal, a major investment pitch, or even a book. But one way or another, writing will be a muscle that we keep using for work.
For many of us who had trained under a routine of papers and reports, good writing was about weaving statistics, sophisticated words, and quotes into long paragraphs.
I thought that this assumption only prevailed in academia, but it seems that many of us have carried it over into business settings as well. However, most of the corporate leaders I spoke to for this article lamented that such writing was difficult to read and they dreaded such long emails/presentations.
Jianggan Li, CEO of Momentum Works, shared with me this insight during one of our writing huddles. “There’s good writing and there’s bad writing. Everyone can write well, but most of them do not have the confidence to do so. Many people churn out torturous blogs/papers/reports/emails– and it wastes everyone’s time. The secret to good writing? Simple writing.”
More often than not, we underestimate the power of simple writing. And in this blog, let me connect the dots and present to you the arguments for good, simple writing.
Simple writing is underrated
Simple writing shows clarity. To explain a complex idea with jargon and long paragraphs takes memorization, but to break it down into simple terms (without losing its essence) requires a far deeper understanding.
More importantly, simple writing puts your audience first. It acknowledges that your average reader is overwhelmed by information but constrained by time. They wish to gain insights without jumping back and forth between paragraphs or following long trails of ideas. Simple writing may use simple words, but it gets this job done, very well.
Despite knowing these obvious benefits, many people (including myself) still use bombastic and inaccessible words, overexplain, and drop statistics too liberally. In the end, our simple ideas only morph into long, convoluted paragraphs.
I spoke to colleagues and friends alike– many not only shared this challenge, but also offered similar explanations to why they struggled to communicate on paper.
Why do we sabotage our own writing?
4 main reasons:
- We fear losing the argument (and being criticized):
For most of us, arguments are zero sum games. Win the argument and gain praise; lose the argument and receive criticism. The fear of the latter motivates us to cast a wide net and cram as many ideas (and statistics) as we can in our writing.
It worked for us in school, and it worked with micro-managers at work.
- We tie writing to our ideal self-image:
Our writing will reflect our self-image. That is why some people spend hours– or even days– crafting the perfect email. We want to appear intelligent, sophisticated, and eloquent (cue words like “mellifluous”, “perfunctory”, “latitude”, “propensity”). Simple words and sentences don’t exactly convey this image (or so it seemed).
I blame Shakespeare.
- Giving the right amount of context:
When in doubt, overexplain. It seems better to risk giving too much information than to risk omitting that crucial piece of information. In the corporate sense, it translates to a “spraying and praying” tactic.
Case in point: 5-page-long CVs explaining someone’s achievements.
- Having too many dots to connect:
This usually happens if we are writing about an unfamiliar topic or when we cannot see the big picture. As a result, we compensate by finding more data points. And since we don’t know which of them are important, we inundate our readers with ALL the information.
It makes it difficult to connect the dots and distill the big picture. Questions arise and we fall back into Reason #3 above.
It’s a vicious cycle.
So then, how can we overcome these mental barriers?
Tips for simple writing
Here at Momentum Works– all my colleagues and I have to write for The Low Down. Here are various tips/principles that my teammates and I have found effective in overcoming these mental barriers and reminding ourselves to write simply:
- Write to express instead of trying to impress – focus on communicating your ideas clearly and accurately. Elegant and fanciful sentences are a bonus.
- Recognising ambiguity shows wisdom, not weakness, in your writing. It’s better to write a few sentences and acknowledge what you don’t know, instead of writing a lot of sentences to (try to) hide it.
- Embrace criticisms because they will only strengthen your argument and the overall discourse.
- Develop your arguments linearly – your arguments are easiest to follow if you move from point A to point B to point C.
- Avoid using words that you will not use in your daily conversations– your readers will probably not understand them (The Momentum Works team currently has a blacklist of such words, and I’m a notoriously frequent contributor).
- Procrastinate (effectively) when you are experiencing mental blocks – your writing tends to be long and disorganized if you get caught up in rabbit holes.
- If you are still caught in a rabbit hole, take the leap of faith– and start again from scratch.
- Be clear about your target audience – and their needs and expectations.
- Talk to more people. Feedback from people can help you uncover your blind spots or direct you towards the bigger picture.
- At the same time, remain clear about why you are writing something. Simon Sinek’s golden circle (“Start with Why”) provides a useful framework for thinking about this question.
Communicate effectively with simple writing
Writing is a way for us to digest information, refine our thought processes, and arrive at our own conclusions. But more importantly, writing is about communicating your ideas and influencing your audience. After reading your writing, your readers should become more informed and take action.
Simple writing makes it easier for you to achieve these objectives. As such, I would encourage you all to take up this challenge of writing simpler (even if it means unlearning and relearning what we supposedly knew about writing), so that you can communicate your ideas clearer and influence the world with your ideas.