Want to Write Well? Learn to Write Badly

In communication, if you want to write well, first write badly. [tweet this]. Counter-intuitive I know.

Our research at CCL shows that communication is a highly valued competency for leaders in organizations, and it’s also a big challenge that leaders face. This is particularly true for leaders managing for the first time in their lives who are usually front-line leaders, those at first- or entry-levels of leadership in organizations. Good communication is necessary for success, but for most of us, it’s easier “said” than done (pun intended).

When we normally “talk” about communication, we think about the way we say things and how we communicate through our nonverbals (like our gestures, postures, tone of voice). But the written aspects of communication are so important too. Think about the reports you may have to write, the written documentation that states why you need more resources for your team, or why you or someone on your team deserves a raise, bonus, or promotion. The vision or mission statement for your team or project that has to be perfect on paper. As a leader, writing well is a big part of being a good communicator. So how do you do that?

In this short conversation I had with one of CCL’s highly talented postdocs, Dr. Cathleen Clerkin, she focuses on how the research in the academic fields of the brain and neuroscience (for instance, Patricia Goodson’s Becoming an Academic Writer) can help leaders be better at writing and communication.

When it comes to written communication, here’s what Dr. Clerkin suggests: To write well, you need to write badly. [tweet this]. That’s right – write badly. What does that mean?

  • When you start to write something, write without editing and self-censoring. Just generate ideas. Brainstorm. Use stream-of-consciousness. Bullet points. Don’t try to find the right, perfect word. Just get everything down on paper.
  • Why? Because when you generate ideas, you use one part of the brain. When you edit, you use a different part of your brain. By trying to use both parts of your brain simultaneously (by editing as you go), you are SLOWING DOWN your brain.

So, to write well, you should write badly. How do you do that? Here are tips Dr. Clerkin provides:

  • Practice writing every day, for short increments of time.
  • Don’t worry about typos and the way things sound in the beginning. The goal of the first draft is to just get things down on paper.
  • Take breaks when writing. When you come back to it, you will have a new perspective.

Professional writers change 9,000 out of 10,000 words from the first draft to the final document. That’s a 90% difference in words from the very beginning to the final product. People who write for a living are not perfect at the beginning. You don’t have to be either. So, if you as a leader want to write well, then learn to write badly. If you want the perfect document in the end, strive for imperfection at the beginning. [tweet this].

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About Bill Gentry

William (Bill) is currently a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and also an adjunct assistant professor at several colleges and universities. In applying his research into practice, Bill’s current focus is on helping leaders who are managing for the first time in their life. His research interests are in multisource (360) research, survey development and analysis, leadership and leadership development across cultures, leader character and integrity, mentoring, managerial derailment, multilevel measurement, and in the area of organizational politics and political skill in the workplace. He received a BA from Emory University and an MS and PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of Georgia. Follow Bill on Twitter: Lead_Better
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One Response to Want to Write Well? Learn to Write Badly

  1. avatar Dan Ryan says:

    I read this and understand, but it seems so inefficient to me; must be the engineer in me.

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