An under-appreciated leadership skill

Learn to write.Grayscale photo of a fountain pen writing on a lined page.

I’m not suggesting you need to be the next Pulitzer Prize winner or that you should write a Great American Novel.

I am stating that the better you are at writing, whether it’s an email, a PowerPoint deck, a Slack message, or even a text, the more successful you’ll be.

Don’t agree? Just think of the endless emails you receive, and consider which ones you read, which ones you groan over, and how many (how few?) of them you understand on first read-through.

Writing well is an essential leadership skill. And it’s extremely learn-able.

Four tips to get you started.

1. The proverbial shitty first draft

That term was coined by Anne Lamott in her 1994 book Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life.

Get your thoughts on the page, whether that’s an actual piece of paper or your computer screen.

As author Jodi Picault said, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

Other writers have suggested that the first sentence or paragraph are there specifically to be thrown out.

Get it on the page!

2. Set it aside

If it’s important enough to write, it’s important enough to set aside for a little while. If you simply must send it immediately, give yourself five minutes to get up, walk around, get coffee, play ball with the dog, listen to a brief bit of music – whatever gives you a break from words. In other words (ha!), do something non-verbal to give your brain a break before you come back to edit.

For instance, I write these articles in the morning, and then come back to edit in the afternoon, after other tasks and lunch.

3. Edit!

The secret to good writing is good editing.

Read and edit your shitty first draft. Make sure you’re saying only what you need and nothing more; too much explanation, for instance, will undermine your points.

Put in paragraph breaks; our eyes hate long blocks of text.

Aim for a conversational, not formal, tone (unless you’re writing an academic paper, in which case, follow the required norms). Think about contractions: instead of “we are,” “we’re,” and so on. It’s much more readable and understandable.

Remove adverbs. As another well-known author, Mark Twain, said, “If you see an adverb, kill it!”

And be very sure you’ve explained what you want the recipient of your writing to do. Don’t assume they’ll Just Know.

4. Read it out loud

I learned this from my author father many years ago, and it’s a technique lots of writers use. You’ll be amazed at what you discover when you read your writing out loud. Redundant words, typos, clumsy construction, out-of-sequence points – it all becomes glaringly evident when you read aloud!

Bonus tip: practice

Like anything we do, the more you write, the better you’ll be at writing.

And one more tip: read. And whilst you read, consider how well the author is writing, and what you might change. You can learn as much from the not-so-great writers as you can from the excellent ones; you don’t need to read classics (unless you want to) to learn about good writing.

Good writing isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s a key aspect of your ability to get things done and be successful.

Some of my clients know that I offer writing and editing as an added bonus to our work together. Whether it’s a full-fledged book (I’ve edited each of one client’s four successful books, and he credits my editing with landing him a deal with a well-known publishing house), an article, or even a LinkedIn post, I’ve supported many of my clients in developing their skills – or simply doing it for them. If you’re curious, drop me an email from my contact page and we’ll talk.