How to unlearn how to write

Here’s a little test for you. Scroll down to the next line of text. Without thinking, say the missing word:

____ habits

You’re probably in the majority if you said “bad”. The two words appear together so often they’ve formed a collocation.

We tend to think of habits being bad more often than good. Biting fingernails. Swearing. Snacking on a entire bag of spicy mixed nuts while cooking. Just a few of my own that come to mind.

Bad habits have a habit of sneaking up on you. Photo by Ricardo Mancía on Unsplash

But we have good habits. And — even better — we can transform bad habits into good ones. F**k yeah. I mean…Huzzah.

Doing so can have a profound impact on our lives. It takes commitment at first, but then our brain’s autopilot kicks in. It’s no wonder Stephen King calls his habit of writing 1000 words a day “a sort of creative sleep”.

Shane Parrish from the Farnam Street blog puts it like this:

“While goals rely on extrinsic motivation, habits are automatic. They literally rewire our brains. Once we develop a habit, our brains actually change to make the behavior easier to complete.”

Innovators seek to change people’s habits, clearing the way for others to make progress with a new product or service. YourGrocer, for example, delivers high-quality, local food produce to your door. In When Coffee & Kale Compete, the founder describes the struggle of getting customers to return to his website:

“They had this habit around being able to duck down to the local store when they ran out of a key ingredient while cooking. Then, while they were at the store, they’d pick up extra groceries. In this case, they wouldn’t need to come back to us for another two weeks. Sometimes they’d fall out of the buying cycle, and we’d lose them as customers. Habits like these are our biggest competition.”

As a solution, they sent follow-up emails inviting customers to repeat the last order with free delivery. They gradually changed the habits of their target audience — who saved time by avoiding inefficient dashes to the store.

Of course, companies also leverage habits to get us hooked on their tech. But that’s a topic for another day.

Do you remember how you learned to write?

Everybody writes. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

If you’re like me, you probably have some fading memories. Carefully drawing a shaky letter “a” between two lines. That essay on Macbeth. The teacher’s expression as she read your poem about a monster who gobbled up teachers. The second essay on Macbeth. Something about adverbs. Red pen all over your university dissertation. A third essay on Macbeth.

But there’s not one, solid memory. Writing is a habit we form over the years. And everybody does it — emails, instant messaging, complaints to the car rental place that charged you an extra €180 for one solitary crisp on the back seat.

Many of us retain the rules we learned at school or college. Those rules are great — for academic writing. For everything else in life, they can make writing murky and inaccessible.

Prepare to unlearn and rewire your writing habits. Here’s a list of things to purge from your brain.

Adding unnecessary words for the jollies

Perhaps a hangover from academic writing — and boy were there hangovers during academic writing — we sometimes inject needless words into our sentences.

Sometimes the culprit isn’t that obvious. Like these innocent-looking buggers:

  • However
  • Here
  • Some
  • And
  • That
  • Though
  • Like

Consider the following:

(I made up that bit about concentrated knowledge droplets.)

We also tend to modify nouns and adjectives. In reality, it’s not necessary.

The exception? If you want to emphasise something. Really emphasise it. Desperately, fiercely emphasise it.

This excellent article by Pete Boyle demonstrates the power of precision much better than I could.

Setting yourself up

Writing is storytelling. Many people think that there are exceptions to this. I can’t think of any. Even academic writing follows this basic principle.

Here’s Elizabeth Adams from Harvard’s Writing Center:

“Structuring your essay according to a reader’s logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay’s ideas via a written narrative.”

A story reveals new pieces of information as it unfolds. You inevitably need to hold something back to hook the reader. In stand-up comedy we don’t laugh because we hear a list of jokes and punchlines. We laugh because the punchline reveals something previously hidden from the joke’s narrative.

Don’t reveal the punchline.

Academic writing may well tell a story, but it does encourage you to reveal the punchline before the joke starts.

Back to Harvard. The first thing you should do in an essay is:

“State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it’s important to make that claim.”

If I did that for this article, you’d already “know” all the bad habits to avoid when writing. You might not still be reading this. Maybe you’re not still reading this. Maybe I’m just talking to myself. Might as well say whatever I want. Wizzle wozzle. Big fat bum.

Avoid explicitly talking about the structure of the article. Like so:

In this article, I’m going to outline A, then summarize B, then use A + B to demonstrate how they contribute to conclusion C

It immediately smells like forced fun. Like a party where the host announces the mandatory schedule of games.

Being all passive

This one’s well-documented.

In active voice, the subject of the sentence does or acts on the verb:

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence changes. The subject doesn’t do the action denoted by the verb, it receives it.

What does this mean for your writing? If you use active voice, you make things clearer. You establish a more direct relationships between you, the reader, and actions they take. Consider the passive version of the sentence I just wrote:

How is someone’s writing affected by this? If active voice is used, things become clearer. A more direct relationship is established between the writer, the reader, and the actions taken by the reader.

The second one is like being in the room when someone else is talking about you — but not to you.

The one good thing passive voice is good for? Avoiding responsibility. Which is why, in an age of lawsuits, you often see it in legal writing and press releases.

In April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon well spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, causing widespread damage to marine life and coastal habitats. Over the following years, BP released reports and statements — none of which admitted we failed to do X and Y. Instead, they positioned BP as a one (small) entity in a whole group of contributors by using the passive voice.

This comes from a report in September 2010:

“A complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgments, engineering design, operational implementation and team interfaces came together to allow the initiation and escalation of the accident.”

It’s no secret that politicians have a hard time apologising. They skirt around around edge, flirting with some of the words you might find in an apology, without actually saying “I’m sorry”.

They’ll say things like “mistakes were made” and “poorly-informed decisions were taken”.

Unless you’ve got a lawyer on your shoulder or you’re a politician, take a hard pass on the passive.

Endless sentences that, when you really get into it, don’t necessarily need to be this long, despite the fact that when you wrote essays, these were the kind of sentences that really impressed tutors, notwithstanding the challenge they impose on your reader, a challenge that, quite frankly, will see them abandoning ship, aforementioned “ship” in this case being your job posting, landing page, blog article, or any other piece of written content designed with the intent of being consumed by another human being

Shorter sentences let your narrative breathe. They make your writing — and the message you want to share — more digestible. Unless you habour a real grudge against your readers, don’t make them work to understand what you’re saying. The realisation of what you’re blathering on about shouldn’t be a treat for those who’ve run the gauntlet that is your convoluted linguistic ballet.

Your sentences don’t need to be long for them to carry weight. In fact, short sentences can have more impact. Plus it makes things much more digestible. Especially if you balance them out. Cut ’em and highlight something. Change the rhythm.

But it goes without saying. Writing like this. All the time. Loses impact. And loses the will to live. Use sparingly. Or else. Nobody. Will. Care.

Not really saying anything at all

It pains me to disagree with Ronan Keating, but when it comes to writing saying nothing at all really isn’t saying it best.

Here’s an extract from an article about Twitter:

For scheduling tweets, there are plenty of tools out there: Use Hootsuite, Buffer, MeetEdgar and CoSchedule and perfect your timing to the tee. However, as brilliant a helper as these lovely tools are, a good rule of thumb to follow is that unless there is a real reason to your rhyme, tread that water carefully, not deliberately. People do sense too much automation and not enough intuition.

I’m yet to decipher what the writer is trying to say. As a reader, I have to struggle to untie all the knots of the sentence, and I adopt the Google search stance of “did you mean _____ ?”

Meaning is completely lost in a barrage of idioms and metaphors: “to the tee”, “rule of thumb” ,“reason to your rhyme”, “tread that water carefully”. We use metaphors to describe something or someone by referring to something else with similar characteristics. But here, we’re missing the something or someone. Because everything is metaphorical, nothing is literal — and we have no reference point to grab hold of.

In the UK, it’s illegal to write an article about writing without quoting George Orwell. So here goes:

“The concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

Orwell says that in these cases, the writer either has a meaning but can’t express it, or is indifferent to whether their words mean anything or not.

The latter is born out of laziness. I’m guilty of it — all writers are at some point or another. What’s that you say? I need to write an article comparing the infrastructural nuances of cloud computing providers? Urgh. I’d rather not do any research, so here’s a string of phrases I think might express something about it.

Related to this are dead “internet truths” we’ve seen so many times they now have zero worth. Things like “content is king” and “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Say something different. Or, if you want to make the same point, engage your brain to think of a different way to say it.

It’s now illegal in the UK to write about writing without quoting George Orwell

Using jargon with an audience that doesn’t speak your jargon

When I was little, my best friend and I made up a language. We even created a dictionary for it so we wouldn’t forget all the words we’d invented. It was exciting — a secret communication tool that nobody else had access to.

Jargon performs a similar purpose. It sets up an unspoken condition: If you know the lingo, you’re in. if you don’t, you’re out. Social glue to help groups stick together.

So let’s not completely poo-poo it. In fact, jargon can help form a stronger bond with your audience if they’re familiar with it. But not if they have to schlorple your jujubups in order to lololo a yukiblorp.

Just a bit of jargon from the old dictionary there.

In academic writing, the jargon is made up of longer substitutions for simpler words. Let’s deploy the Google approach, shall we?


Did you mean: get around


Did you mean: complex


Did you mean: show

Of course, if you wanted to circumvent my advice, a multi-faceted educational jargon generator is manifest on this site.

Banging on about stuff that’s irrelevant

You’re browsing through job opportunities and you come across a posting that says this:

You’ll be working in a team of seven people, who constitute one half of a two-team swarm. That swarm sits in the acquisition colony, which is managed by the head of acquisition. She in turn reports to the director of marketing. The Marketing department has seven pillars. The first pillar…

Do you really need this information now? Is it going to affect your decision to apply or not? Does it hinder your application not knowing this?

The correct answers to all three questions, of course, is no.

Sure, you may find some information about the team useful at this point. But “you’ll work in a small team with one designer and one copywriter” is fine. The rest you’ll learn when you starting plotting your ruthless ascent up the corporate ladder.

Writing a job ad? At this stage, candidates don’t really want to know about your org structure.

Go forth and write more good

Congratulations. You’ve successfully unlearned how to write. Doesn’t your brain feel lighter now? You’re now clear to re-learn by practicing these principles and forming good habits.

As musicians advance in their skills, their ear becomes better at recognising when notes are out of tune. The more you write, the more you’ll notice the duff notes. You’ll want to slice up pointless words, switch to active voice, and create new metaphors that actually mean something.

To your colleagues it might seem fussy and futile (we once had a company-wide marketer versus marketeer debate). But it pays off when you need to communicate clearly and effectively. And unless you’d like to live an isolated hermit life foraging mushrooms in the forest, you’ll need to communicate most days.

Bad habit transformed into good. Hell yes.

I mean…splendid.

Thanks for reading. There’s more on my website.

Content designer, short fiction dabbler, foreign language flirt. I do words and that at Shopify, Toronto.