Talking It Out: Thoughts On Professional Writing

Angela J.A. Kent, Head Editor, INALJ-Virtual Work

Talking It Out: Thoughts On Professional Writing

AngelaKentThe dreaded blank screen and blinking cursor.

Whether it’s preparing a cover letter, writing a paper for class, creating a work presentation, or drafting a report for your boss, professional writing can be tough.

Sometimes the link between your thoughts in your head and getting them down on paper is the oft-missed verbal expression of those thoughts.

Here’s what I mean:

Talking it out. Whether it’s a 5-minute elevator pitch or a 5-year plan, the actual verbalization of those career goals and plans has helped me focus on job searches and contributed to my overall confidence in my career plans.

Take note of how you answer one of the following questions when asked in social or professional settings: (1) “What do you do?” or (2) “What type of work are you interested in?” Never mind the why or the how, but rather focus on what it is you are choosing to highlight about your work or the work you’re interested in. Thinking about what you tell people first about your work (or want to do) is a signal of the type of work you prioritize and are passionate about.

Write like you speak (minus the “likes” or “ums”). If you tend to do better during interviews or just conversations in general, approach your cover letter or writing samples like you would a face-to-face conversation.

I don’t know if it’s because there’s some greater sense of urgency to trying to answer a verbal question or if the actual verbalization of my thoughts make it easier to then write it down, but taking this approach always feels less daunting than going straight to writing.

Sometimes job postings will include writing prompts like “describe your commitment to [insert industry]” or even more specifically “how do you meet the knowledge, skills, and abilities as listed.” But even if there’s no clear prompt, the general question can be presumed to be “tell us why you’re interested in working with us.”

To avoid summarizing your resume, try to think about someone actually asking the question and how you would verbally answer — as directly and succinctly as possible. There is something to the casual conversations with friends and family about why you’re applying to a particular job, what you like about the job, and why you think you are a fit for the job. In these circumstances, you’re usually explaining these ideas in much simpler – yet clearer – terms than you might approach your cover letter.

Note to self. While I don’t do this often, keeping on hand a personal recorder or just using your voicemail may help with remembering ideas and clarifying your thoughts.

Professional writings rarely happen in one sitting for me, but I’m always thinking about what I need and want to write about. Sometimes it can be easier to record those thoughts verbally than on literal or digital pen and paper. It’s no wonder that there are a ton of apps for voice memos and voice notes out there.

Listen. From experience, I know that listening to my writing always leads to a better final draft. Running your writing through a text-to-speech app is so easy and can be done without the assistance of an editor. It’s like a second set of ears, when you don’t have a second set of eyes.

I’ve used Chrome Speak in the past and now use the Mac integrated text-to-speech tool. Windows also supports a text-to-speech program. The low-tech version of this is to just read your work out loud and catch these same errors.

Clear your throat. I once heard that the first paragraph of a first draft is all throat clearing. That is, instead of getting to your main point sooner in your writing, the first part is taken up by unnecessary summarization.

I’m a fan of putting your main point up front. This style of writing can be particularly effective for the succinct and direct nature of most professional writings. In these instances, we don’t have the opportunity to present a background summary with a description of evidence that leads to the inevitable answer. Rather, you have only a handful of paragraphs to work with and neither the space nor the time to bury the lead.

When you’re down to the refining stages of your writing look critically at your first few sentences (or even paragraphs) to see how much “throat clearing” exists and where your actual main point is located. Pushing your main point closer to the beginning of your piece can usually make for more effective and persuasive writing.

Watch and Learn. If you ever have the chance to record and watch your presentations, do it! As cringeworthy as you might feel about it, listening to your verbal ticks can help with your writing. Many of us use the same transition terms in writing, like “that is,” or “in so much as.” If you’re trying to get rid of repeated terms in your writing, have a closer listen to how you bridge your ideas in conversation.

Happy writing!