Be a Much Better Writer by Avoiding the Biggest Mistake Most Good Writers Make

You can make yourself a much better writer almost immediately by avoiding the biggest mistake most people make: trying to cram too much into their writing.

Big words. Intelligent ideas. Intimidating grammar. The sentiment seems to be, "If I can't wow 'em with one thing, I'll impress 'em with something else."

Here's what sometimes happens to me. I begin writing with a single good idea or vivid impression. That gives me a good first sentence and provides energy to keep me going. As I continue, however, things get complicated. That one, original good idea gets pummeled out of shape by a host of other, not-so-good ideas that creep into my writing along the way. Before I know it, I'm in a verbal bog and can't seem to climb out.

Has that happened to you? Here's what you should do about it:

  1. Don't start writing until your idea is pretty well cooked. Be sure you've looked at it from all angles and that it has passed the test.
  2. When you do write, stick closely to that idea.
  3. Don't allow extraneous thoughts and/or information – no matter how interesting – to intervene.
  4. Remind yourself: "I'm trying to say one thing and one thing only."

To be consistent with my advice, I will keep this message simple. Here is what I'm trying to say: You will be a much stronger writer if you restrict your efforts to a single good idea.

Whether you are writing a short memo, an hour-long speech, a long essay, or even a book, you'll do best if you base it on a single, strong idea. State that idea as clearly and as simply as you can. Then prove it with specifics. There is nothing more convincing than tangible evidence. Your job as a writer is to convey one good idea and make it come to life with detail.

This idea – that you are better off writing about one thing at a time – is proven by a cursory review of best-selling books. From "What Color Is Your Parachute?" to "Who Moved My Cheese?" to "The Road Less Traveled," it's evident that less is often more.

Early to Rise messages that focus on a single idea tend to be rated higher than messages that wander about. Of the 50 messages recently chosen for republication by an editor who knows good writing from bad, all but two focused on single ideas.

You will find that this holds true for business memos too. If there are five ideas you have for growing your business, you'll generally get a better reaction by issuing five separate memos than by bunching all your good ideas together in one.

Does this work for creative writing? For novels and film scripts and poetry? We could have a good argument about that, I'm sure. But it's not creative writing we're talking about today. It's the writing you do to build your career. And for that kind of writing – memos, letters, personal notes, and sales copy – one idea at a time is plenty.

Next time you have to write something, ask yourself:

  1. "What is my core idea?"
  2. "Is it a good idea that's worth reading about?"
  3. "What is the simplest way to express it?"
  4. "What kind of details can I use to explain/prove it?"

Do this first and you will see the difference.

[The above article, "Be a Much Better Writer by Avoiding the Biggest Mistake Most Good Writers Make," is from Michael Masterson's daily e-mail service, Early to Rise. For a FREE 2-week trial membership, simply visit Early to Rise.]

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Published: September 30, 2002

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