I have a friend who says some days, she’d rather run five times around Quidi Vidi Lake before breakfast than write a particularly difficult e-mail.

She’s not alone. Over the past several years, I’ve trained hundreds of people in business writing skills. Repeatedly, I’ve heard many otherwise confident souls confess that they chronically second-guess their writing. Is the text grammatically correct? Is the tone appropriate? Is the message getting across?

Back in those Neolithic days before autotext entries and spell checkers, I worked as a writer in the head office of a large international company based in Montreal. Finding the perfect word in one language could sometimes be a challenge; translating the text into a second language often seemed as daunting as trying to climb to the moon on a ladder of stars.

The job, however, was to publish in two languages. One day, I asked a colleague why she was sending the documents she’d written in English to a translation bureau. Why didn’t she simply rewrite the text herself in French? After all, she was well educated and fluently bilingual.

“Ah,” she said, “because translation is an art.”

As I pondered that Zen-like approach to writing yet wondered if she was a gal who simply shirked her work, my friend explained that professional translators understood subtleties of language she probably would not be aware of. She also knew what I was just learning: it was more efficient to spend her time doing what she did best, instead of agonizing for hours on work she wasn’t proficient in and might never do well no matter how hard she struggled. It was far better for her to hand over, to an expert, the work she knew she couldn’t handle at the level she required.

So the translators took the words tossed at them and artistically reworked the text with flair and ease.

The lesson? If you’re wrestling too long and reaching for too many ibuprofen when you write, try stepping back and handing off your work to a specialist, if you’re able to hire a ghostwriter. When looking for outside help isn’t feasible, try asking someone on your team who may have writing strengths that are different from yours to review the material. A person looking at the text with fresh eyes will likely be able to offer you some suggestions. For long-term solutions, consider brushing up on grammar and punctuation rules to avoid time-consuming stumbles when you tackle a writing project.

Still, there’s that creative side of being a scribe. I was reminded of the artistry of language a few weeks ago.

“On the Skirwink Trail” by Gerald Vaandering

I met an artist who sometimes creates, in oil paints, striking landscapes of the areas near his studio in Pouch Cove. Part of the joy of experiencing Gerald Vaandering’s painting comes from sharing in his creative process. On the right-hand side of some of his pieces, he includes a vertical strip of mingled, messy blobs of pigment—some colours are vibrant, some muted; some are large, some tiny. This wild conglomeration of colour is separated from the finished work by a narrow width of unpainted canvas.

“What is that?” I said, always the diplomat, when I first saw his novel approach to a familiar woodsy scene.

Gerald explained that the band of jumbled colours was his palette; the painting on the left was the product of how he mixed and applied those pigments to the surface.

“Ah, ha,” I said, “Just as we writers blend seemingly random words and punctuation marks to create text.”

So it occurred to me that writing, which has been the mainstay of my career for over 25 years, is much like painting in other ways, too. When we write, creatively or otherwise, we need to strive for a rhythm. With the right flow of words, we can pull readers into our text and allow them to leave with a new perspective or greater clarity about our chosen topic.

In business writing, though, we sometimes forget the overall structure—or in painting terms, the composition—of what we’re working on. How easy it is to charge at an e-mail, press send, then on reflection, wish we’d written the message differently. I frequently offer silent thanks to the software programmer who developed the delay setting for sending e-mails.

An artist needs to visualize and often sketch out the work to come. Similarly, a writer needs to plan a key message and a path that will lead the reader to understand what artists call the focal point.

Here are some simple steps to help you speed up the writing process at work.

Ask yourself:

  1. What is the key message?
  2. Who is the targeted reader?
  3. What is the most appropriate tone for the message and reader?

Then, take these steps:

  • Write a draft.
    Here’s where you can jot down your points in any order; you can rework your thoughts later.
  • Rewrite your text.
    Here’s where you make sure you present your points in a logical sequence. Ensure there’s a rhythm to what you’re saying by leading your reader step-by-step along your thinking process. Check also to make sure you’ve answered the three questions you considered before starting. Review your grammar, spelling, word choices, and punctuation. Review the format and layout of your document.
  • Walk away from the document for a couple of minutes, or a few hours, if you have time.

Here’s where you refresh your thinking process.

  • Read your text as if you were the recipient.

Here’s where you sometimes realize you may not have seen the forest for the trees.

  • Ask someone else to read the text for you, with fresh eyes.

Here’s where you can draw on the strengths of others in your team: perhaps you work with someone who is a great speller or a terrific fact-checker. They may see errors that you overlooked while you were in that forest of word trees.

Above all, don’t fret. Remember the Zen-like aspect of writing: it is a practice to help you, not cause you frustration. But if you’re having trouble finding that inner peace, know there’s no shame in asking a colleague or specialist to give you a hand.

Nancy Ralph owns Words for the Moment Inc./Des mots pour le moment inc., a writing and training service. She helps others improve their written and oral communications skills through individual and group coaching; she is also in demand as a ghostwriter for business and technical documentation. Nancy has worked as a writer, editor, and trainer in Canada, the United States, and several countries in Europe, but has returned home to St. John’s.


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