My husband is learning how to write. He’s literate — but he’s only ever written scientific reports, emails, commit messages and Facebook posts.
Okay, that’s probably more than a little unfair to him — but it is true that he has had very little practice writing prose. It’s also true that up that hasn’t mattered much to him because he didn’t need it for his career. Until now.
And his predicament is remarkably common. Plenty of people leave school, college or university without having honed their writing skills. Plenty of people going into careers that rely overwhelmingly on oral communication, or where writing is largely efficient, functional emails or factual reports.
So, every day, people find themselves faced with a situation they’re ill-prepared for:
- they’re starting in a job that requires them write persuasively (a new civil servant writing advice for Government Ministers);
- they’re asked to (or want to) work in the open and write their first blog posts or weeknotes;
- they’re writing cover letters and job applications for the first time.
This can throw up all sorts of emotions.
Professional insecurities. My boss think I’m a better writer than I am, so I’ll be exposing myself as a fraud if my first draft isn’t really, really good (and so not really a first draft at all).
Embarrassment or shame. This is the sort of thing we’re supposed to learn in school — how could I get to this age and not be able to write well?
Fear. What if I make a misjudgment in my writing and publish something that hurts my project, my team, or damages the reputation of my organisation? What if I get trolled?
The good news is people overcome these fears all the time. Or, at least, they feel the fear and do it anyway — their worries shrinking a little each time they do.
Things to remember
Writing is a valuable skill and even in a technical job being able to write persuasively will help you do your job better, and will help you in your future career. It is worth investing time and effort to hone your skill.
Writing takes practice. Guides and frameworks and tools all exist to help — but writing is more like learning to drive than following a recipe. You will need to practice. And to improve quickly, you will need feedback in order to iterate your writing.
The best way to get feedback is by writing and sharing your sh*tty first drafts, and asking the people around you to read it and give you feedback. Sharing early — before you’re happy with what you’ve written — is key: (1) because you won’t have invested too much in what you’ve written yet and so will find feedback easier to hear (which makes it easier for them to give); and (2) because the sooner you get extra eyes on it, the less unnecessary work you’ll have done. You want that critical feedback, those additional perspectives, those remedial nudges in the right direction, the earlier the better.
It’s worth taking time to consider who to ask for feedback.
If being able to write well is part of your job, then it’s part of your bosses’ to help you improve. Don’t be shy about spelling out to them that this is a skill you want to develop. They hired you for the role and they wouldn’t have done so if you weren’t good enough to do it — so there’s no need to feel like an imposter. Everyone has development needs and you need to be open about yours if you’re going to work together to plan how best to address them.
If you’re writing a job application, then you might ask a recruiter, a hiring manager, someone in a similar role to the one you’re seeking, to review what you’ve written and give you pointers.
If you’re writing project weeknotes, ask your team to review them. If you’re in a politicised space or on a potentially controversial topic, find some critical friends who know where the most common elephant traps and troll-triggers lie. Perhaps publish it for a smaller audience to begin with, to de-risk it slightly while you see how it lands.
Yeah but…what if I embarrass myself?
The benefits of learning to express yourself well in writing are worth the cringe you’ll feel when you start sharing your work. Yes, there’s a chance you’ll feel embarrassed but you need to practice and feedback to improve — you’d rather be embarrassed about your first draft and not your final one, yeah? And, anyway, most of the people you’ll share with want to see you succeed.
If you’re like me, you’ll never really be happy with what you write. I still feel a little imposter syndrome, still have to push through a reluctance to share earlier than I’m comfortable with. But it doesn’t stop me asking for feedback, and doesn’t stop me hitting publish — and it shouldn’t stop you.