When I used to talk to young professionals about writing, the first piece of advice I gave them was “Don’t fall in love with your work.” By that, I meant that several people would have opinions on it and order edits and by the time it was done, it would often be unrecognizable. If they fell in love with their work, they’d push back against changes, get their feelings hurt and perhaps sabotage themselves in the process. It’s just work, it’s not the Magna Carta or the next great novel.
I was a speechwriter for 18 years — for people whose first language was not English. I had to take their accents into account in deciding which words to use that would simultaneously get their point across, yet not have them fumble embarrassingly over a word. Since these people were business executives, speeches had to go smoothly for both the audience and the speaker. And the writer.
During this same time period, I was also responsible for all corporate publications. I went to Japan to train in corporate affairs at company headquarters, and I went to the United States to teach people at our sister companies how to develop and implement publications. Communication was key between Japanese and Canadian businessmen and I played a large part in making sure they understood each other, through writing.
The point of my introduction is to prove my bona fides when I start giving out tips and tricks to writing, editing, speechwriting and pretty much any kind of writing that needs to be done in a busy multinational corporation. But these tips filter down well to individual writers who may be freelancers or working for a small company. Writing basics transcend environments and there are many tips that serve for any writing challenge.
For example: Proofreading. How do you proofread? I proofread backwards. I start on the last page and the last word, and work my way to page one and the first word. Why? Because if you wrote something, you already know what you said and feel comfortable with it. You’re close to it. You won’t see the little mistakes that every writer makes. It could be a typo, wrong spelling, or missing punctuation. As you read backwards, you only see the words, one at a time. They are isolated. You’ll notice if there’s a spelling mistake or a typo. You might even see the need for punctuation changes although that’s a little tricky to do backwards.
After I’ve proofread something backwards, then do I read it from beginning to end. I’ve already read it from beginning to end a few times. That’s when you read for context, continuity if it’s needed, and most punctuation errors. Reading it in context you’ll better notice grammatical errors as well. Remember that you’ll get wrapped up in the story so will miss things you might not have caught without first reading it backwards.
One of the questions I was often asked by young writers (perhaps it was a journalism class or a young professionals organization) is “Where do I start?” When it comes to speechwriting, my first step was to sit down and interview the person who’d be giving the speech. I determined their audience, what points were vital to make in the speech, and the length of time they were expected to speak. The most critical question to ask? “Who is your audience?” That will dictate the content of what you’re going to write and perhaps even the tone.
To be able to do this, I had to understand my own industry very well. As primary writer and only editor of the quarterly 24-page magazine for employees and hundreds on a mailing list, I learned about the industry first-hand by being out in the plant and talking to people. It made interviewing the speaker so much easier, so do learn as much as possible about the subject matter before the interview. You might have to resort to two interviews, which is okay. Find out what you can, interview the speaker, then take your notes and research the other things that were discussed. Reinterview if needed, or write a first draft. SAVE your first draft, but never expect it to go ahead without many changes. It’s not an insult to you; it’s a work in progress. The reason I say save your first draft is that depending on the company, your well-intentioned superior and the person giving the speech, it might end up reverting back pretty close to your first draft. (Not often, though it has happened to me.)
“But WHERE do I start writing?” I was often asked. I told them it was a personal choice, but I usually started in the middle, at the meat of the speech. I’d go back and do an introduction and tie the ends up later, after the speaker had seen a first draft of the “meat.’ After all, that’s what they’re trying to get across; it’s the whole purpose of the speech to begin with.
I have started writing at the beginning before, but my experience was that beginnings always had to change as the speech or article progressed. So try and think in terms of the most important part of the speech or article, which is normally found in the middle. I had most success mentally breaking a speech down into five parts: Part 1 is the introduction, parts 2, 3 and 4 are the “meat” of the message, and part 5 is the closing. Moreover, the meat of the article or speech may dictate both the introduction and closing, so writing them first may be a wasted effort.
Another good tip is that you should go full circle in an article or speech. By that I mean when you refer to something in your introduction, refer to it again in the ending so you have tied the speech together in a cohesive way. You’ll leave a few ends dangling in the middle part, and the closing part is where you’ll tie up those ends and bring the message home.
If you found this article on writing helpful, let me know and I’ll write on this subject again.