Why "think before you write" is terrible advice
In his classic work of cultural theory, Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga begins with an apology for the limitations of his research, saying, "To fill in all the gaps in my knowledge beforehand was out of the question for me. I had to write now, or not at all. And I wanted to write."
My mind often “thinks” in cartoons, and as I read these words, I picture Huizinga dashing out of the library at Leiden University—knocking down a shelf of books in his haste—and making a bee-line for his office like a fo…
Why America's simplicity prophet bungles simple writing
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” That’s the mantra of Henry Thoreau, who in 1845 took to the woods beside Walden Pond (just outside Concord, Massachusetts), to strip his mode of living down to the bare essentials. For two and a half years, he lived in a one-room log cabin he built himself, grew much of his own food, and became a self-appointed prophet of an anti-industrial lifestyle. The book that resulted from this this experiment, Walden, is still an inspiring and challenging read for any…
Does your team fall into this common writing trap?
Two heads may be better than one, but they are also less efficient. Teams tend to be great at generating interesting ideas but poor at producing focused, unified documents on a tight timeline.
The big mistake many teams make is assuming that the best way to divide writing work is to assign everyone a section of the document to produce. This approach makes little sense if you compare it with the way teams approach other kinds of projects.
The quickest way to improve team writing, then, is to b…
Never miss another deadline because of writing blockages
You don’t need to see the latest stats on project failure rates to know that most IT and engineering projects don’t meet their initial timelines. One experienced project manager once told me that 75% of technology projects fail to meet the schedule, the budget, or both.
At the time, I thought she was a pessimist, with maybe a bit of paranoid personality thrown in. But it turns out she wasn’t exaggerating by much. Failure rates for IT projects, documented in various research studies, range from…
What Mr. Bean and Yoga Have Taught Me About Writing
Have you seen the Mr. Bean Snickers ads in which Rowan Atkinson plays a ninja in training? If so, then you have some idea of what it’s been like for me to learn yoga over the past few years.
I’m so clumsy that I've never dared to attempt yoga in a live class. Who knows whom I might accidentally kick or roll over while trying to fold myself into some impossible pretzel shape? The corner of my bedroom seems a much safer spot for everyone.
About four years ago, when I first decided to give yoga a…
The useless fantasy that makes writing tougher than it needs to be
Imagine you're playing a medieval fantasy game in which your role is not warrior but writer. Rather than trying to find a gem or break a spell, your quest is to create a report.
As you journey toward this goal, you fight a series of monsters with names like Ennui, Self-Torment, and Delay. Your secret weapon against these and other perils is your Muse, a powerful female figure whom you summon by collecting spells for your writer's spell book.
When your muse magically appears, she looks like a c…
"Do you make these mistakes in English?"
Fear can act as a persuasive motivator—especially the fear of seeming inept or ignorant. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the headline “Do you make these mistakes in English?” frightened more than 150,000 Americans into buying a correspondence course to improve their language skills. The ad for the course is widely considered one of the greatest pieces of copy writing of all time.
As a writing coach, however, I cringe every time I see a new version of the famous headline. So many blog posts and magazine …
Managers need to unlearn their writing skills so they can teach others
About seven years ago, I suddenly stopped cooking. One day I just realized that my usual round of chores felt somehow lighter, as if a heavy knapsack I’d been carrying a long time had gradually slipped off my shoulders.
I remember when this happened because at the time my daughter was just starting to get interested in cooking. And because I was no longer cooking, I had a hard time helping her learn how to fend for herself in the kitchen.
For years, I’d thought of “cooking” as a scientific pro…
Great ideas start with great conversation
Although I’ve been in the business world for many years, I still refer to myself as a “recovering academic.” I feel I'll never quite leave the halls of the ivory tower behind me because I still have to fight daily against the urge to complexify, not simplify, language and ideas.
I also have to remind myself frequently that writing isn't the only tool for promoting deep thinking. That’s not easy to do because I came of age in the era of an educational movement called Writing Across the Curriculu…
Avoid these eight ways you could be sabotaging your technical proposals
Most technical proposals don’t flop because they’re not precise enough about technical matters. They fail because the writers self-sabotage by focusing on themselves rather than on their readers.
Here are eight common pitfalls to avoid the next time you write a proposal:
1. Showing off your enthusiasm
The pitfall: You write at length about how pleased, honoured, thrilled, excited, and so on you are to have the opportunity to submit a proposal for such an awesome opportunity.
Why it’s da…
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