Note: This week’s tip is an updated version of a post from last August.
For whatever reason, we often don’t write what we want to say. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something and thought: “That’s a lot of words that don’t mean anything. I have no idea what I just read.” Sometimes it happens because we think what we have to say is offensive. Sometimes we’re trying to hide bad news with pretty words. Sometimes we just don’t know what we want to say. No matter the reason, the result is always reader confusion and a lot of wasted words.
So whenever I edit this type of piece (at least in my world, it’s typically some kind of communication at work or a student paper or essay), I ask one simple question:
What are you trying to say?
Nearly every time I’ve asked someone this question, they’ve been able to give me a coherent answer that makes a lot of sense. I always respond with, “Write that.” And their writing always improves. Simple question, impressive results.
Last time I posted about this, someone commented that what the reader gets out of a piece is often very different from what the writer meant. Sometimes that’s okay—especially when your purpose is to make the reader think. But sometimes a writer needs to convey a specific point (maybe in an office-wide email explaining a new procedure or a flyer to promote an upcoming event). In those cases, it’s vital for the reader to understand your point. But regardless of the type of piece you’re working on . . .
What are you trying to say? Write that.