Before You Write, Read!
Get it in your head before you try to put it on the page.
A HOLIDAY FREEBIE -- TODAY ONLY!
At noon ET today, Friday, December 18, I'll be doing a free-for-everyone edit session online. Just bring your document -- speeches, op-eds, social media posts, even screenplay or stageplay scenes -- and I'll go through a bit of it with actionable tips to improve your work. But you have to register -- click here. Merry Christmas from me to you. See you there!
My dad, a pastor and a writer of immense gifts, gave me my first and best advice on writing: write what you know.
But if you, dear reader, are a professional communicator, your first reaction may be thanks, but my job is to write about things I don’t know.
Yet my dad was still right: you must be well versed in any material before you try to explain it to somebody else.
We’ve all batted out stuff in a hurry, Wikipedia in one window and Word document in another, cut-and-pasting things, re-wording what we find, and moving things around so they seem to make sense even though we don't know the details ourselves.
There's a better way. It won't take much longer than what you're doing now. And until you do it this other way, you can't be sure you've written effectively.
Here's the thing: you can’t explain anything until you understand it yourself.
If you can’t state the main idea in a simple sentence of fewer than a dozen words, chances are you don’t understand it at all. The best demonstration of comprehension is the ability to restate something in simpler terms. How to get there? Writing down ideas and notes as you read will help you acquire knowledge faster. And the act of using a highlighter – there’s a digital one in Microsoft Word – will help you remind yourself what matters in the material you’re reading.
If you can't state the main idea in a few words, you don't understand it.
Create a simple outline of the material. A few phrases will do, organized in a list. Put things in your own words to help them stick in your memory. Look up words and jargon you don’t understand. We all know we’re supposed to do this, but more often we intuit meaning from context, and this isn’t as wise a shortcut as you think. Disinterested, for instance, does not mean uninterested, at least not in all cases. Quota can refer to both a minimum and a proportion.
That Buckley-esque vocabulary item you skipped over is probably there for a reason. If you don’t know it, type it into the search bar. Not only will you know it next time, you’ll increase your vocabulary – and your teacher was right, a bigger vocabulary has benefits.
All the study tricks you used as a high school and college student have a place in the daily life of the professional writer. Studying is how we understand, and you must understand before you can explain. Think before you write or, as my dad said, write what you know – and if you don’t know it, learn it.