Think More Clearly Through Writing
By Stephen Dupont, vice president, Pocket Hercules
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee
One bright sunny day in May many years ago, walking across the campus of the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., I encountered Father James Whalen, the head of the journalism department. He was an imposing figure. Tall, silver haired, demanding, with a refined Irish wit. He was a no-nonsense priest who commanded attention. He easily could have run a Division 1 college football program, but instead hammered his students on the value of ethics and the pursuit of writing excellence.
Father Whalen questioned my class choices for the upcoming semester (I was leaning toward majoring in business), ending our conversation simply by saying: “Writing is a reflection of your thinking. Stick with me and I’ll teach you how to think.”
That continues to stay with me to this day.
No matter who you are or what you do in life, if there is one thing you should work on every day of your life, it is your writing.
As a person who feeds his family based on my ability to write well, I wake up thinking about what I will write that day — white papers, business plans, news releases, articles, Facebook posts, email blasts, radio scripts, new business proposals, PowerPoint decks, annual reports, etc. Each day offers variety and unique challenges.
No matter how big or small the project, I look beyond the words to the thought that my words will reflect. With experience, words and thought come together in a harmonious flow to express my thinking with absolute clarity. But many times, I need to resort to a handful of tools to help me frame, process and refine my thoughts until I arrive at a clear message.
In other words, writing to clearly express your thinking can be messy, difficult and challenging. You can only improve that process if you practice it often, and with intention.
In the marketplace of ideas, the words, images and sounds that express thinking in its clearest form often win out. This can even include positions and stances that many of us may resoundingly oppose. These are the messages with which people take action through purchases, donations or votes.
In the daily wrestling match between word and thought, my goal is to improve my writing by at least 1 per cent each day. It’s a challenge I invite you to share. This means working toward improving a little bit every day. Practice that one kick for the 5,678th time. In other words, you don’t have to go for a grand slam with every assignment, and for that matter, achieving 100% improvement every single time is simply unrealistic. But 1% improvement over 100 days is 100%. One percent improvements might range from building the habit of asking another person to proofread your work to celebrating your revision of a sentence that was unbearably too long.
Here are some more thoughts on how to become a clearer thinker through writing:
Write daily. Intentionally write something each day that advances your ideas about your work, career, an organization, an industry to which you belong, or an issue that you care about deeply. This should be done outside of the slew of emails, texts, and other documents that you create or edit each day. You could write about a hobby, such as gardening, or write poetry. You could write a letter to the New York Times about an important issue, as one of my friends regularly does, or you could offer to give a presentation about what you do for a living to a college class. Whatever it is, write with the intention of communicating a thought as clearly and as persuasively as possible.
Put yourself “out there.” Many people enjoy keeping a journal or diary. That’s an excellent way to practice the habit of writing, but it’s not the same as sharing it with someone else, or a group of people. Sharing your writing with others, and seeing it published — whether in the church newsletter or in an industry publication — accomplishes three things:
- It pushes us to examine our thoughts,
- It forces us to face the fear of standing up for an idea, and
- It invites dialogue and criticism.
That’s the whole point of writing: to create something in our own words and allow others to comment on it. That’s when you discover whether the process of how you form and communicate a thought is working…or not.
Create value. Of course you have a voice and of course it needs to be heard. But, put your “customer,” the reader, first and foremost. Ask yourself: “How will my writing improve the life of my reader? How can my writing solve a problem, alleviate fear, inform the ill-informed, or inspire someone to take action?” Several years ago, the company I worked for laid off thousands of employees. In my job, I wrote to communicate why the company did what it had to do. But, in writing those words, I always kept employees – those who lost their jobs (and their families), as well as those who stayed – first and foremost in my mind. Never have words weighed so heavily on me.
Write so an eighth grader would understand it. Without getting into the philosophy of logic, I use a simple test for my writing: would an eighth grader be able to comprehend my message? This does not mean dumbing down your writing. When you’re writing for specific audiences, it’s critical to use vocabulary that clearly expresses your thinking, while giving your thoughts credibility, richness, and context. However, don’t assume that everyone who’s reading your content (or viewing or listening to it) understands your vocabulary choices, or the context of certain words.
Source your claims and back up your opinions. In today’s world, where people easily accept whatever source they Google as the truth, it’s more important than ever to source your facts and figures, and back up your observations and opinions. Don’t be wishy-washy about it. Your argument becomes stronger based on the credibility of the sources behind your thinking, as well as your transparency, which allows the ready to see the trail you took to get to your current position.
Ask. Stop relying on Google to gather background information for your next writing project. Go to an original source. Find an expert whose quotes can add credibility and authority to the basis of your thought, and whose thoughts can provide you valuable context in shaping your thoughts and understanding.
Get out there. For one of my clients, I was offered the opportunity to write a series of case history articles about the use of the client’s product in a number of industrial settings. I easily could have obtained the information I needed through phone interviews, but my client was insistent: “You need to physically go to the paper plants, chemical plants, steel plants, oil and gas plants to see exactly how our products are being used, and interview the people who interact with those products daily.” It was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. It’s critical for you to actually get out from behind your desk and go visit the people or places that you are writing about.
Just start writing. Some people avoid writing because they have difficulty getting started. Here’s a lesson I learned from my father, which I still use to this day when I feel “stuck.” Back in fifth grade, I faced a blank sheet of paper and the assignment: write an essay on the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong. My Dad said: “Just start writing. Whatever comes into your head, write it down.” Eventually, he told me, your thoughts will catch up to the words.
Be open. When I was in 11th grade, my English teacher, Audrey Johnson, challenged me to advance my writing. I enjoyed putting a humorous twist on many of the stories that I wrote for English Composition. Then, she gave me a photo of a haggard old woman who looked like she’d been through hell and back, and said, “Write her story.” Ms. Johnson’s challenge helped me to see that I could break out from a style of writing that I had leaned on for too long.
Over the course my career, I’ve had to learn to be open to many different types of writing. With each new challenge, bits of writing combine with new ideas, memories, cultural moments, pieces of fact, to form an ever-growing pool from which I can reach into for inspiration. Borrowing from previous challenging writing experiences, your next writing project becomes more informed, richer, and more impactful.
Build a network of writing mentors. It’s not easy to see your document splattered in red ink. Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with a number of people who have generously taken the time to push my limits as a writer. Surround yourself with people who will take the time to review your writing and tell you like it is. It’s those who question your thinking, writing style, and the technical aspects of delivering your message who will make you a better writer. Savor every piece of feedback, and thank them generously for caring about your quest to think more clearly.
These short cuts are simply a way to help you enhance the clarity of your writing. There are no guarantees that you will “hack” your way to brilliant writing. It took one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, more than 20 years before he achieved his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse Five. Whether you dream about writing a novel, publishing your first peer-reviewed research paper, or drafting a news release, writing is ultimately an exercise in persistence, and an inner journey to understanding your values about quality.
Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont at www.linkedin.com/in/stephendupont or stephendupont.co.