Do you let your writing walk all over your personality?

Writing guides like me always preach that you should write as you speak, whoever you are. But often there are big-bully barriers that get in your way, making your writing dull, long-winded and not like the real you at all.

Does your writing walk all over your personality?

Here’s how to get over those barriers to achieve fluent writing that sounds like the you, and to make sure it never walks all over you again.

You feel you have to reflect the importance of your job

There’s no reason why what you write should be any different from the way you speak to your colleagues, staff, customers or clients, stakeholders, etc., when you’re in a relatively informal meeting with them.

Provided that you’re confident in yourself, your skills and talent, those will shine through in your writing without your needing to resort to long words and pompous phrasing. Keep it simple, have some faith, and your readers will hear your voice coming through those words.

You’re not too sure exactly what it is you want to express

Another thing we pro writers often admit is that once we get writing, we often delete the first paragraph because that was us just “warming up” before we really got to the point. It’s not just pro writers; everyone does that, especially when they haven’t really decide a) what they want to say or b) how to go about saying what they need to say.

By all means, take all your time to “warm up” with your writing, but be brave enough to go back with a hatchet and chop out the early sentences where you were getting the car running and the oil circulating smoothly around the motor.

You’re hampered by the need to use conventional structure and wording

This is especially true amongst “professionals” like doctors and lawyers, as well as throughout the scientific and academic communities.

Lawyers always come up with the excuse that to use sentences less than 95 words long with any punctuation at all opens them and their clients up to horrendous legal liabilities potentially costing millions. That may be true for a legal contract, but it isn’t true when writing a letter to a client or prospect. A short, snappy sentence in active rather than passive speech does not make you look like a moron; it makes you look human and alive in the 21st century.

Does your writing walk all over your personality?Doctors, despite repeatedly being asked by patient representative groups (and I speak as one of those, as well as doing my day job) to write letters about your healthcare in layman’s terms, invariably fall back into medical jargon – especially if they’re writing a letter to a medical colleague with you, as the mere patient, being copied in for good measure. If the correct terminology is “radical cystectomy with formation of ileal conduit” that’s fine, but to insert (in brackets if you must) “bladder removal followed by construction of a stoma on the abdomen” would be very helpful. After all, that’s how you, the doctor, would describe it to a patient face-to-face. It may feel comfortable to chat away in jargon, but get out from behind it when non-professionals need to understand it.

Academic writing makes my eyes cross. However I mustn’t criticize it according to my undergraduate son who sends me his university essays to proof-read. These are so tightly packed with long-winded sentences and paragraphs several inches long, I need a bottle of water and a sandwich to sustain me just so I can read them to the end. If your audience is entirely academic, OK, but if non-academics – or non-specialists – need to understand what you write, once again – write it as you would tell it to their faces.

You want your text or script to sound properly “corporate”

I’ll never forget an advertising agency wallah who once rejected some copy I had written for a corporate brochure because I had written a direct, no-fuss account of what the (his) client company did and how it could achieve damned good results for its clients.

Why? It didn’t seem “corporate” enough. What do you mean? I asked. “Well, you know, there should be more long words. More formal writing. More, you know, corporate stuff.”

Much as freelancers like moi  can scarcely afford to fire a client, I fired this guy and told him where he could stuff his business along with his corporate lunacy.

Don’t be silly. The fact that you and/or your corporate organization know how to use long words means nothing other than long-windedness. Don’t hide behind it and allow it to destroy the personality, zest and vigour of the organization: get off the corporate high horse and tell it like it really is.

You’re afraid to step out of a comfort zone that you learned years ago

Does your writing walks all over your personality?Particularly if you studied English (or the language of your own country if that isn’t English) through high school and into tertiary education, you may still be harbouring rules and conventions that no longer apply, and perhaps never did considering that we’re now out in the big wide world beyond school.

Many of us, me included, can still hear our old English teachers’ remonstrations when we strayed away from the norm with our writing, splitting infinitives and leaving participles dangling all over the place. The reality is that we do that when we speak, and so in theory we should do that when we write.

Apologies to older English teachers, and here’s a caveat … you need to know what the rules are, before you can break them effectively. So to write “I want to utterly trash that malformed opinion” is technically wrong, but everyone can understand it because it’s only a minor transgression from what’s correct and so is easy to grasp. However to write “I think it’s essential to utterly and beyond all serious, sensible doubt trash that malformed opinion” doesn’t work.

See the difference?

Moral of the story?

Writing today – whether for personal, business, “professional” or whatever other requirements, is all about sharing information in the quickest, most effective ways. It’s not about pontificating, patronizing, posturing or any of those turgid old affectations that pervaded literature a few decades ago.

Now, it’s about being you, writing as “you,” and connecting with your business and personal communications in an honest and worthwhile way.

Provided, as always, that you use sufficient discipline in grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax so that you leave no-one in doubt as to what you really mean.


Some help to make sure your writing reflects who you  really are:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

photo credit: mezone via photopin cc

Why professionals need to get naked to write simply


Strip off your professional persona if you want to write well for the general public…

A very interesting issue often comes up in workshops I give for senior professionals who need to write text for the general public.

These writing workshop participants are experts in their field and they find it hard to “detune” their vocabulary and way of communicating to the level required so that their audience can understand what they’re talking about.

And when they do, they feel as guilty as hell about it, because they think they’re being patronizing. They forget that simple language – as opposed to technical jargon and complex terminology – is what everyone speaks every day .. . including them.

Remember what it’s like to be human?

Something I have been banging on about for years is that the last person who should ever write text, a speech or anything else is an expert – as I ranted about in this HTWB post back in early 2011. If you don’t want to read the whole post, basically I said that experts know too much and assume too much prior knowledge of the subject matter on the part of the audience.

However members of this group I was working with recently – and they’re typical of many such specialized groups in both commercial and public sectors – have to write information for the general public whether they like it or not. They find it difficult. Yet it’s not hard for them – and others like them – to leap over the credibility barrier and communicate with their audiences in ways that work, as long as they see that it’s OK to detune their language.

You have to get naked

That’s right: strip off your uniform, your business suit, and your professional persona. Consumers, recipients of information from the public sector and other “ordinary” people are intimidated by all that and if you so much as utter a term they don’t understand they will click right away from your text.

Especially if you’re someone who is a senior expert in your field, get off your high horse and think – and write – in the sort of fashion your key audience uses. I know it’s hard … I have spent many, many hours over the last umpty-dump years re-wording information  produced by “experts” in a way that mere mortals can understand.

I shouldn’t say this because I might be doing myself out of some business, but hey – why not just detune your text yourself?

It’s not that hard – just talk to your ordinary self

This idea of detuning your text actually shouldn’t be that difficult, provided that a) you accept that you need to do it and b) you can relax and become a member of your target audience while you’re writing.

When I set exercises for my workshop I ask participants to imagine they’re sitting around a table with a cup of tea or coffee, explaining the topic in hand to someone like this (depending on the nature of the intended audience):

  • A close friend
  • A bright 12-year-old
  • Someone you’ve just met
  • Someone who doesn’t speak English very well
  • An elderly aunt or uncle
  • Etc.

Then I get them to write down what they would say in those circumstances.

If you can’t write it, speak it

Quite often, workshop participants start off very well in their written attempts but sentence by sentence creep back into their own jargon and tone of voice.

The answer here, is to forget writing for the moment, and speak the topic through. Record it, transcribe it, and use that as the basis for your writing.

It’s very simple, really. To write effective information for the “general public,” you have to strip off and become a member of the general public again, yourself.

Some help make sure you don’t need to get naked:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English