In my work as a writing coach, one of the most common difficulties I see is this: People often don’t recognize when they have a clear, compelling idea. Consequently, they churn out volumes of muddy, convoluted writing in a labored attempt to get to the point. Sadly, they often fail to arrive at that destination despite all their hard work.
A big part of the problem, I’ve found, is that many writers try too hard to shoehorn their very first attempts to grapple with their topic into language that would sound appropriate for the finished piece. This is rather like trying to apply varnish before designing the table. It also pretty much kills a writer’s potential for clear, creative thinking.
Relax, folks. All good writing is really just good editing. Your initial rough draft is supposed to be rough, so don’t worry about whether it sounds appropriate. Just focus on letting your ideas form and flow. Here’s a trick to help you do that…
TUNE IN TO COLORFUL PHRASES
It’s much easier to get right to your point if you can recognize what your point is. Your point (core message) should be something unique, relevant, and valuable from the perspective of your target audience. Finding that combination may take a little digging and mulling, so you can figure out what you really want to say.
The easiest way I’ve found to help writers figure out the core message of a particular writing project is to get them to listen to themselves.
Literally, when I’m coaching I ask writers to talk to me, informally and in plain language, about their topic. I ask them why they’re writing about that topic, what they’ve learned about it, and what it could mean to their target audience. While we’re having this discussion, I get them to pay attention to the words, phrases, and imagery they use when they’re not concerned with sounding “official,” “professional,” or “appropriate.”
Guess what? After writers loosen up and really get into their chosen topic, they tend to gravitate toward the aspects of the topic they find most important, surprising, or intriguing. When this happens, they tend to speak faster and in a more animated tone the first clue that we’re onto something good.
Then comes the dead giveaway that we’ve gotten to the good stuff: They start using idiomatic expressions.
According to Dictionary.com, an idiomatic expression is, “an expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up.” In other words, it’s when you use a colorful phrase as a metaphor or similie in order to convey a deeper, more visceral message about the nature or significance of a situation that facts alone cannot communicate.
HOW TO LISTEN TO YOUR OWN WORDS
A few months ago I was coaching a homeland security policy analyst. He was writing a policy paper about the need for written leadership succession plans in government. He felt very strongly that this topic was dangerously overlooked in many states and major metro areas.
As we discussed why succession plans mattered, at one point he burst out and said, “Look if a tornado just nailed the statehouse room where the governor was meeting with all his senior staff, and there’s no clear succession plan, then the public’s sense of continuity and security is what’s gonna get blown away next while everyone’s scrambling, wondering who’s on first! That, I assure you, will be no picnic! That kind of chaos always comes with a major price tag attached.”
Hmmm… “nailed…” “blown away…” “who’s on first…” “no picnic…” “price tag attached.” all highly evocative idiomatic expressions. When my client used this language, I could see his point quite literally, because his words provided my mind with some vivid imagery.
Then I asked him, “Well, how ready are state and city governments for sudden succession, generally? Do most of them have plans?”
He replied, “Sure, lots of governments have plans but usually they’re gathering dust on top of a filing cabinet somewhere. No one really knows who’s supposed to do what.”
From this exchange, we realized that we’d found his lead – an effective way to introduce his topic and engage his target audience of state legislators and emergency planners. My client’s revised lead went something like this:
“When sudden tragedy strikes state or municipal leaders, knowing who’s in charge of the government can minimize further destructive chaos and prevent costly inaction. However, most states and cities have no clear succession plan in place, or else they have not sufficiently communicated existing plans to the people next in line to lead.”
…This was vastly more compelling and effective than my client’s original lead, which went something like this: “State and municipal governments must establish a plan to ensure the succession of top leadership and key roles in the event of a man-made or natural emergency.” While that sentence accurately defined the topic of his paper, it indicated nothing about why his target audience should care enough about this issue to make it a higher priority at this time. But his main point really was that governments really must get moving now on this issue. The revised lead conveys both the significance and urgency.
WHY COLORFUL PHRASES WORK SO WELL
Idiomatic expressions are powerful because they communicate on several levels at once. They’re experiential, rather than conceptual and abstract. They add a layer of context that can literally be grasped with the senses. When the senses as well as the mind are engaged, both you and your audience are likely to get more engaged with the topic.
People tend to use idiomatic expressions to emphasize that something is particularly significant on a human or personal level. So when you hear these phrases creeping into your thoughts or discussions, pay attention! They often are guideposts to ideas or information that you should emphasize in your writing.
Recognizing the value of idiomatic expressions does not mean that your final document should be strewn with slang and idiomatic expressions. For most work-related writing, professionalism is crucial. Feel free to use idiomatic expressions in your first rough draft, or even just in your initial brainstorming but then replace them with more appropriate language before you show your draft to your editor or reviewers.
NEXT STEP: TONE IT DOWN, BUT DON’T DILUTE
It’s always easier to tone strong language down than to “punch up” weak language. In your rough draft, always err on the side of saying something too strongly. Then go back and tone it down a bit.
Usually it’s possible to replace colorful idiomatic expressions with plain words that are also clear, strong, vivid, and precise. For instance, in the example above, my client and I wrangled over whether it was OK to use the word “tragedy” in his lead. In the end, we decided that even though such a strong word was unusual for a policy paper, in this case “tragedy” was entirely appropriate and accurate.
Choose your words carefully when making key points. If something is unequivocably bad in the context you’re exploring, call it a “problem” not a “challenge” or an “issue.”
Avoid vague, mushy, tame word choices when making your strongest points. This is the most common mistake I see in business, professional, and government writing. If you can write clearly while also being appropriate, your work will outshine the vast majority of work-related documents competing for your target audience’s limited attention which means your work will probably get read.
Related article: The Ear Catches What the Eye Misses, CONTENTIOUS, Oct. 14, 2003. It covers a good trick for spotting problems with your writing: reading it aloud to yourself.