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Four essential elements to becoming a better writer

A longtime Fast Company contributor shares the tips she’s gathered for creating compelling writing.

Four essential elements to becoming a better writer
[Photo: WokinghamLibraries/Pixabay]

I was a pretty confident writer when I became a regular contributor for Fast Company three years ago. After all, I’d taught writing at the university level, written several books, and worked with leading CEOs as a corporate speech writer. So I was surprised by how much I had to learn. Working with my editor, Rich Bellis, has given me a new appreciation for what it means to write like a pro. Even if you’re an experienced writer, you can probably polish your skills. Here’s what I’ve learned:

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1. Good writing takes collaboration

A good editor makes writing—which can be a lonely undertaking —a collaborative process. Collaboration builds strength on strength. Typically, I’ll run four or five ideas by Rich before I undertake a full article. In most cases he’ll say, “Yes, go for it,” or, “Great, I like your idea of structuring the piece around those four instances.” He’ll also tell me when he thinks an idea won’t fly. For example, he told me my proposed, “Get your meeting mojo on,” was too broad and too familiar a topic.

Our collaboration at this stage goes beyond his approving my suggestions. Often we’ll toss a story idea back and forth until it works as a publishable piece. He helped refine the focus of one of my recent pieces that became, “How employers can curb depression in the workplace.” He guided me carefully on this deep dive into a sensitive topic. Frequently, Rich provides a better angle than I had envisioned. The bottom line is that the story is always better because we’ve worked together.

2. To grow as a writer, you have to step out of your comfort zone

Over the last three years I’ve written 38 articles for Fast Company on a wide variety of topics. Many have been on language and its pitfalls, emotional intelligence, and public speaking skills.
But with Rich’s encouragement I’ve ventured further afield, examining the science of happiness, depression in the workplace, my experience with a personal trainer, my newest book, and what I learned when I spent three hours listening to conversations in an elevator.

What writer wouldn’t be thrilled to explore such a vast terrain? Right now I’m contemplating a piece on, “What a trained balloon twister can teach us about the workplace.” Thanks to Rich, I remain open to a host of creative ideas.

3. Writing doesn’t have to sound like writing, it can sound like a conversation

Rich is also wonderfully skilled at punching up my prose. I never thought of myself as a stuffy writer, but working with him has made me sound clearer, more hip, and engaging.

Just look at some of the “before” and “after” lines that reflect his fine editorial touch:

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Before: The work of leaders is to be found in the very moments when we’re interrupted.
After: The true test of leadership—at every level of the workforce—is to make time for others even when it isn’t convenient.

Before: To begin with, be sure to reinforce and praise the best ideas put forth in meetings.
After: This one’s easy. Praise and reinforce the best ideas you hear being put forth in meetings. But it goes beyond just noting the contributions with, “Great idea.”

4. Your headline should sell your idea without giving it away

Finally, Rich has helped me write headlines that advertise the piece without giving everything away. He’s put my headlines and deck titles through the same punching-up process as my prose, and I’m always grateful for it.

One title I submitted was, “Don’t wait until year-end: Inspire your team every day with impromptu feedback.” The published headline was, “5 emotionally intelligent ways to inspire your team every single day.” Shorter and snappier.

Rich Bellis is heading off to the Wall Street Journal, where I’m sure his skills will help many readers and writers. It has been an honor to work with him, and benefit from his talent and graciousness. Best wishes, Rich, in your new role.

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About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a communications expert whose business teaches global clients how to communicate as confident, compelling leaders

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