When colleagues ask for advice on writing, one of the first questions I ask is, “Do you read your work out loud?” In an age where we consume so much content through speakers or earbuds–from radio to podcasts and videos–I’m struck by how often the answer is no.
Words are sounds, first and foremost. When you arrange them into phrases and sentences, they’re not just so many strung-together visual symbols. They should have music and rhythm. I’ve made reading aloud a key part of my writing process, because I’ve learned that my ear will pick up flaws–in flow, in cadence, in long-winded phrases–that my eye may have missed.
So, listen to yourself as you speak your words. If they sound clunky or lack energy, you have more work to do.
In addition to writing by ear, I’m also a great believer in writing with your feet.
Let me explain.
I try not to write too long in one sitting. It’s a practice I adopted long before sitting became the new smoking. At least every 30 minutes or so I make myself get up and walk. It gets the blood moving. It’s a butcher’s steel for your brain.
But in addition to just moving about, you’re also temporarily moving away from the words on your screen. Along with walking, try to make your mind shift gears and occupy itself with things completely removed from what you’re writing about. Have a brief chat with a colleague on another floor. Return a few emails on your phone. Or, if it’s nice outside, take a stroll around the block and people-watch.
When you return to your writing, I think you’ll be amazed at how often a troublesome phrase suddenly smooths itself out, or that word you were groping for just falls itself into place.
Someone asked Oscar Wilde what he’d done that day. He replied that he’d spent the morning taking out a comma–and passed the afternoon putting it back in. In our line of work, of course, we rarely if ever have the luxury of writing at that pace. Often, we have to hammer it out, look it over, turn it in and move on. But that habit of willful self-interruption will enable you to inject at least some additional time and space into the creative process. Your writing will be better for it, and you’ll burn a few extra calories.
The Game of Editing
Finally, a word on editing. I suggest you make it a bit of a game. After doing an overall edit, switch to a more focused approach. Make a pass just to see how many long words you can replace with short ones. On another pass see where you can break up long sentences. Still another should have you seeing how many words per paragraph you can cut. Then challenge yourself to cut at least a few more.
From there, if you can, share your work with a colleague whose writing you admire. A fresh pair of eyes will nearly always catch things you’ve missed. And, besides, writing can be a lonely gig. Don’t deprive yourself of a little company along the way.
Rich Eichwald is SVP and senior partner at FleishmanHillard.