Can I learn to be a better writer?
September 23, 2009 7:50 AM   Subscribe

How can I be a better writer? My value at work would increase if my ability to write formally improves. I'm an admin in the IT department and don't realy understand the technology or procedures that I have to write about. I think that part of the problem is that I am just not that great at communicating in general. I don't talk a lot, hate leaving vm's. And even writing an email can leave me frozen, constantly worrying saying the wrong thing and/or not being understood.

I just started school again and am taking 2 writing intensive courses. This is slightly easier since it is based on my interpretation of the text.

The people I work with are pretty good at trying to explain things to me. Another issue is that even after one of these sessions the information is not sticking. It will make sense and I think I understand but when I get back to my desk I'm blank. My boss has noticed this and asked me to basically prove I understood him by repeating it all back to him.

So I guess my question is two-fold.

-How can I improve my listening/understanding skills and retain important information?

-How do I become a better formal/informal writer even when I am not an expert on the topic?
posted by mokeydraws to Work & Money (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You become a better writer through practice. Read widely, start a blog, and hone your skills.
posted by dfriedman at 7:55 AM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

It will make sense and I think I understand but when I get back to my desk I'm blank. My boss has noticed this and asked me to basically prove I understood him by repeating it all back to him.

Take more notes during these sessions. Err on the side of including plenty of detail and complete sentences. Your notes can give you a head-start in your writing and help reduce those "blank" moments.

Also, ask for clarification on things you don't understand as early as possible. The longer you wait, the more embarrassed you'll feel later on when it becomes apparent that you don't understand something.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:59 AM on September 23, 2009

Seconding the encouragement to ask for clarification. Being willing to speak up and ask questions in a meeting tends to make the rest of the group think of you as intelligent and involved - i.e. even an "easy question" doesn't make you look dumb. (Not knowing the answer later when you've had plenty of opporunity and reason to ask, now perhaps that makes you look dumb.)

I think it's great that your boss is helping you keep these facts nailed down. Don't feel bad about being helped, feel good about having this person on your team. Do you know how you learn things? From your story, I'd say you don't learn by hearing, and man, neither do I. I learn by writing, so I always take notes. I don't learn by reading, so I have almost never gone back and read those notes - but it's essential that I write it down.

To be a better writer in this context is about being a good explainer. Think about how it was explained to you, and the kinds of questions you had. Don't assume that your audience is smarter than you just because you're writing about things you're unfamiliar with. Aim to be clear rather than impressive; always start your writing with plenty of background information, including mention of things "everybody knows". When you hear people talking about these topics you'll be summarizing, listen carefully to the questions they ask each other. Questions indicate possible points that are (a) particularly interesting or (b) particularly confusing.

This is more of a general conversaiton thing than explicitly for writing, but practice by paying attention to how people explain things and how people learn. Listen to conversations (about everything), and when you hear somebody ask a question, think about whether that question was what the person really meant to ask. Is there a way they could have asked that better? Are they asking about effect B because they're assuming cause A isn't present? Being a good explainer also includes understanding why somebody is asking a question. This helps you identify things that you should include explicity in your setup for the discussion.
posted by aimedwander at 8:15 AM on September 23, 2009

Are you still an English major? I don't know about your classes, but when I was getting my English degree, each class required at least one 10-page paper. Becoming a good writer takes time. You should get plenty of practice in the next few years.

Perhaps you will find it useful to take a technical writing course, if it is offered at your college. Technical writing is explaining difficult concepts to others, so it may be immediately applicable to parts of your current job.
posted by Houstonian at 8:27 AM on September 23, 2009

I'm an admin in the IT department and don't realy understand the technology or procedures that I have to write about...Another issue is that even after one of these sessions the information is not sticking. It will make sense and I think I understand but when I get back to my desk I'm blank

Your writing seems plenty clear to me. I think this is the root of your problem.

Are you sure you really want to be in IT? I worry you might be setting yourself up on a path you really don't want to follow.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:40 AM on September 23, 2009

Can I learn to be a better writer?

Yes. Anyone can learn to be a better writer.

Try reading a lot of newspapers to get an idea of how much information good writers can fit into one sentence. Read over everything you've written with as objective an eye as you can.

To remember things better, notes are the way to go. Write notes about everything. It should actually improve your memory, beyond just helping you remember whatever you wrote down.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:41 AM on September 23, 2009

Seconding oinopaponton. Read a good newspaper every day - not your local rag. NY Times or the Wall Street Journal are my gold standards.
posted by djb at 8:51 AM on September 23, 2009

Read. Write. Repeat.

I don't think there are any real shortcuts.
posted by rokusan at 9:04 AM on September 23, 2009

From the above, it sounds like you're trying to document IT procedures. Is this the case? If so, one of the biggest factors that makes a difference in technical documentation is screenshots. Others have given good advice about improving your written communication, but please don't discount visual communication as well; most people reading documentation tend to browse images rather than read text.

If I were in your position, I would go through the following steps.

1. Start with a process that you want to document.
2. Have someone walk you through the process from your workstation, taking screenshots at every logical step.
3. Assemble all the screenshots into a single document, crop them to show only the relevant details, and combine them with your notes. The result is an outline for the process you're documenting.
4. Add text to describe exactly what's happening during each step of the process. The writing does not need to be literary-quality; just clear, logical, and direct.
5. Run through the process several more times on your own, refining the documentation each time. (For instance, taking screenshots out if they're not needed or adding screenshots for steps you didn't capture).

Following these steps will give you a good baseline document that you or others can follow to replicate the procedure as needed.
posted by GraceCathedral at 9:17 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

"How can I improve my listening/understanding skills and retain important information?"

Write notes. Detailed notes, if you must. That way, if there are any gaps in your understanding, you can look back later on and refresh your memory, or go over something you did not fully understand initially.

To retain information, use an SRS like Anki or Mnemosyne. You simply fill out a card with the question on one-side, and the answer on the back (well, there's really no "back"; it's more like a second entry field). Unlike regular flashcards, where it's simply "yes, I remember," or "no, I don't remember", you instead tell the program how well you remember the card (i.e. easy, good, hard). If you pick easy, it might wait 15 days to show you the card again, if you pick hard, it might do it in 9 hours. It's boring, but I've found it to be effective.

I'd also just practice at really paying attention to people when they're talking.

"How do I become a better formal/informal writer even when I am not an expert on the topic?"

Read. A lot. Read non-fiction, read technical writing, read the classics, et cetera. That's all there really is to it. Just read. Maybe write more too, as some people suggest, although I have never personally found myself benefiting from it. (In fact, since my job entails constant writing, I've noticed my writing has gotten worse, not better.)
posted by nimufu at 9:45 AM on September 23, 2009

There are 2 main things that I am going to recommend:

1. Ask for a sample or samples of documents that they like (it is well written, it demonstrates X, Y, or Z). If necessary, have the person point out the top 2 or 3 things they like about the document (this second part isn't necessary, I bet you can figure out).

Anyway, use that as a model, and whatever you write, have it fit the model as much as possible. Are there graphics? Put in graphics? Is it chopped into mini-sections with 10 sentences? Do that. (To be honest, I've been able to learn to write documents that other want and love by just using the sample, using the sample as model).

2. You may want to write something very short and brief. Write for brevity.

Okay, I can't demonstrate what I want up there (brain is off), but edit what you write. Edit it 2 times at least (put down the document, come back, read it over).

To be honest, I think something is wrong with the language part of my brain. However, you can learn to do this and learn to do it well. It doesn’t require that you do a billion things (eg, read the NY Times daily), unless your end goal is to write a NY Times article. Just examine the sample, replicate it. I'm very similar to you, OP, but I now make a living as a freelance writer.

I'm also going to nth the note taking suggestion.
posted by Wolfster at 10:08 AM on September 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the recommendations.

I am a voracious reader and always have been. I always thought I was pretty good at absorbing new information but realized several years ago that this wasn’t happening anymore. For whatever reason I felt that I wasn’t getting any smarter despite being around really smart people in really specific markets.

Note taking is something that I am getting better at. I have to fight the little voice that tells me the info is obvious and that I will remember it.

IndigoJones I don’t see myself having a career in IT at all (I’m a 29 yr old admin) but it is the job that I have now and I want to make the best of it. I used to think I can only learn things that I am interested in but… That’s not getting me anywhere since I don’ stay interested in one thing for very long.

GraceCathedral I am sometimes updating policies/procedures. I am also writing application requests for large purchases and explaining budget issues. Early on in this position I should have had a bigger role in these things but was obviously lacking the skill.
posted by mokeydraws at 10:30 AM on September 23, 2009

Thanks for clarifying, monkeydraws.

One thing I wanted to add is that, in my experience, the principles of good "business writing" can be quite different from the principles of good writing in general. For instance, I was an English major, and I still love reading long Victorian novels. It was part of the learning curve for me to realize that my colleagues don't necessarily want to devote more than fifteen minutes or so to slogging through a proposal, procedure or a specification, no matter how well-written I think it is. As long as you can get your basic point across, keeping things short and sweet makes it much more likely that your document will actually be read.

Norms are also really important in business writing. At the company where I work, something like a request for a large purchase would already have been discussed informally and tacitly approved. The written request would list out the points that had already been made privately in a standardized format. Certain types of business documents are as formally-structured as haikus or sonnets; I would second Wolfster's advice to start by copying existing samples.
posted by GraceCathedral at 12:12 PM on September 23, 2009

Are you getting enough sleep? Is your general health good? Do you eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and/or take multivitamin and mineral supplements?

I ask this not to be chatty old grandma, but because I notice a tremendous difference in my ability to focus and remember when I am not eating or sleeping well.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:50 PM on September 23, 2009

I think that part of the problem is that I am just not that great at communicating in general. I don't talk a lot, hate leaving vm's.

Several of my co-workers do Toastmasters and recommend it highly to anybody who mentions feeling uncomfortable speaking publicly (which seems to be defined as "to anybody other than yourself"). I've been thinking of checking it out myself, since lately I've been feeling tongue-tied more often than I really like.
posted by Lexica at 6:51 PM on September 24, 2009

A classic:
The Science of Scientific Writing

If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs

George Gopen, Judith Swan

This article was originally published in the November-December 1990 issue of American Scientist.

Science is often hard to read. Most people assume that its difficulties are born out of necessity, out of the extreme complexity of scientific concepts, data and analysis. We argue here that complexity of thought need not lead to impenetrability of expression; we demonstrate a number of rhetorical principles that can produce clarity in communication without oversimplifying scientific issues. The results are substantive, not merely cosmetic: Improving the quality of writing actually improves the quality of thought.
posted by at at 8:41 PM on September 24, 2009

Your AskMe was clear enough. I think you just need to spend more time practicing writing, especially the type of writing you'd need to do for work -- by which I mean, not just stream-of-consciousness, unedited writing, butQUALITY writing in which you take your time to organize and edit your thoughts.

Carry a notebook and pen/pencil with you and take notes on anything anyone asks you to do or information you need to remember, and come up with some sort of system for transcribing and organizing your handwritten notes into to-do lists and reference materials.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:44 PM on September 25, 2009

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