“Must have excellent written communication skills.” You see this all the time in job posts, but what does it really mean? Do people really even care about writing skills anymore?
The answer is yes.
All of us are presented with moments when we must communicate our ideas in written form. It may be an admissions essay, or a cover letter for your resume, or a complaint to your landlord, an explanation to a co-worker, a sales pitch for a new client, or a letter to your boss justifying your reasons for a raise. You will have to write, and oftentimes what you write will affect the chances of you getting what you want, so you might as well learn how to be good at it.
Yes, you have to learn how to write. For some reason, many people seem baffled by this idea. “I’ve been writing all my life,” they say. “It can’t be that hard.” These are the same people that fill literary agent inboxes with horrible novels and are outraged when they get rejected.
To those people, I ask a simple question — can you talk? I’m sure you can. But does being able to talk automatically mean you can sing? Of course not. You have to learn how to sing. You have to practice. Even if you have an innate talent for it, that only gets you so far. You still have to learn the art of singing if you want to move people’s emotions with your voice.
The same is true for writing.
With a little research and practice you can dramatically improve your skill at communicating with the written word. You can learn to evoke sympathy, bring people to tears, or stoke the fires of anger with your words. You can learn how to transport your thoughts into someone else’s mind with nothing but letters. Writing is the closest thing we have to telepathy.
But, like all skills, writing demands a sacrifice. Learning to write well is a chore. It takes work and research, and one can get lost in the vast sea of “How to Write” books out there (it has long been said that the best way to make money at writing is to write a book about writing). But the most important thing you’ll ever learn about writing is this:
All writing — all writing — is storytelling.
When you read a blog, you’re reading a story about one person’s experience. When you read a news article, you’re reading a story of real events and people. When you read a product description, you’re reading a manufactured story a marketing team wants to tell you. Even as you read this post, what you’re reading are tiny stories about types of people and events and situations you can relate to as part of my efforts to convince you to do something. Learn how to tell good stories, and people will want to listen to what you say. That is influence. That is power.
So, where to begin? First, write and write often. Get a blog. Sign up for a free blog Blogger or Tumblr or LiveJournal and just write. Blog every day if you can. You can tell others about your blog, or not. It doesn’t really matter, because all you have to do is write. Write about whatever you like — food, poetry, politics, cats. Whatever. Just remember that your goal is to write compelling stories about your topic. Stories have characters, and settings, and a firm beginning, middle and end. Your writing should have all of these.
While you’re doing your writing, read. All good writers must be good readers. I’m sure you’ve read stories before, but when you read as a writer, stories take on new meaning. You dissect and analyze the style and technique of the author. You see things from a different perspective. For example, as a reader I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but it wasn’t until I became a writer and took a more technical look at the books that I truly appreciated J.K. Rowling’s skill (the Invisibility Cloak is a brilliant plot device).
You should also read some books and articles in that aforementioned sea of “How to Write” material. I personally advocate Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing. The Internet also has a wealth of great material for learning how to write, and I particularly like this timeless article on Persuasive Writing, which is the most useful type of writing for the average person.
And when you’ve done all that writing and reading, go back and look at what you wrote earlier. Do you see the flaws? Has the practice and research changed your ideas of what “good” writing is? If so, take note of what you’ve learned, apply it, and keep writing and reading. If not, keep writing and reading. Remember you’re working on a skill here and, as required with any type of craft, mastery takes time. But stay committed, and I guarantee that new perspectives and opportunities will open up to you because of your new ability to move hearts and minds with your words.