Michelle Baker will help you discover your inner writing genius!
She earned her PhD in English Language and Literature from the Catholic University of America in 2008. After teaching English to adult professionals for more than a decade, she founded Corporate Writing Pro.Her company is dedicated to helping well-educated, competent professionals communicate clearly with confidence and ease.
1. Why should clear writing be a value to people? How can it affect their lives?
I think if you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have said most people probably don’t need to worry about it. They’ll be going into their profession, and it’s only the specialist who needs to be able to write clearly.
Today lots of people talk about how specialized our world has become. One consequence is that no one else understands what we do, so we have to become DIY (Do It Yourself) communicators.
We might like to think that with all of our Skype technology, Google+ accounts, and Android phones we’re getting more connected. But most of those interfaces require text input. That’s writing.
Take one day to calculate how much time you spend typing on your computer or phone. Add up the minutes you spend entering keystrokes. Divide that by the number of hours you spent working. And then you tell me: would you like that percentage of your time to be well spent or not?
2. We've all experienced what we might call "writing procrastination." We THINK we're procrastinating, but you say otherwise! Tell us why we're not procrastinating and what's really going on.
You know, I’ve had a lot of people say to me, “I have trouble getting started, but once I get going, I’m really a pretty good writer.” And they’re right. But the trouble is getting started. And that’s where a lot of the writing takes place.
There are six stages in The Writing Cycle. And three of them are pre-writing. So if you have trouble getting started, you have kind of a big problem. And in my experience, that problem is inside The Writer's Triangle.
You may not have a clear purpose. You might not understand your context. Maybe you have competing audiences and you’re trying to write for all of them at the same time. Or you may be struggling with your own voice.
Until you resolve those issues, you won’t be able to “get started,” and that’s not simple procrastination. You can actually sit down with The Writer’s Triangle and do some exercises to sort that out.
3. How can negative self talk affect our writing?
Oh my gosh – I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat down to edit something and my own inner critic just starts to bash it. It’s even worse when I’m trying to write because if I get stuck, any negative thought can quickly turn into: You’re too stupid to write about this topic. You have nothing to say. No one wants to read what you write. And that just stops me in my tracks. I mean, who could possibly write with that kind of criticism?
So I think it’s important to remember that we all have an editor inside, and that editor has a job to do. There is a time when we need to revise and cut and proofread, but we should treat ourselves with the same loving grace and mercy that we would treat a student or one of our own children.
When that voice starts, I try to stop and ask myself: Would I talk to a client this way? The answer is usually no. Then I can look with a more sober, realistic eye to diagnose the situation and get the job done.
4. Your personality comes across so clearly in your writing, which makes it entertaining and easy to read. Why do you think it's important to write for humans and not robots?
As far as I know robots haven’t taken over the world just yet.
I think it depends on where you’re writing, and whom you’re writing to. Obviously if you’re blogging, you want to connect with your audience in a way that’s authentic, transparent, and personable, so you’re going to let lots of personality shine through.
You don’t want to overdo it because readers can tell when you’re being insincere, and no one likes a fake. But you do want to be a slightly “amped up” version of yourself.
I also work with government writers, and they have a different standard. They are expected to be neutral, objective, dispassionate. They write regulations that are published in the Federal Register, so there’s a certain amount of technical language they’re required to use.
Still, they can use personal pronouns like “we,” “us,” and “you.” That helps to make writing more personable and readable. They can also write in the active voice. They can use clauses instead of phrases with subjects and verbs placed prominently at the front of the clause and as close together as possible. All of those things help writing to be readable, and that creates a cooperative relationship between the author and the reader even when your voice is a little more formal.
5. What area do you think people have the most difficult time with when writing?
I think the biggest hurdle for people is trying to do it all at the same time. There are six discrete stages in the writing cycle, and many people try to juggle all six simultaneously. No wonder writing feels like a constant chase after a lost ball!
Once people learn that there IS a process, I can literally see their chests inflate, their shoulders rise, and the gleam of hope enter their eyes. In that moment, my clients sit up and say, “I can do that!”
The more they delve into the process - not just the whole cycle, but the processes inside each stage – the more empowered they become. That’s exciting, for both of us.
6. What is The Writer's Triangle, and why is it important?
The Writer’s Triangle is the foundation of your document. If you ever feel your writing starting to cave in, the triangle will help you to prop it back up.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve been asked to write a letter to a client. The Triangle sits inside a circle of context. And your context is that this is the third letter you’ve been asked to write this week, and your co-worker Jim hasn’t been asked to write anything. That’s negative context and before you can write the letter you need to clear your mind and get rid of it.
At the bottom left corner of the Triangle is your purpose. Your personal reason for writing the letter might be to impress your supervisor, get a better performance evaluation and potentially a raise. But that’s not the purpose that the writing situation demands.
The situation demands that you look at the bottom right corner of the Triangle, at your audience. Again, you might think that your audience is your supervisor. But really, your audience is the client. So focus on writing to the client, identifying their question or problem or concern (the REAL purpose of the letter), and in the meantime, you’ll probably also impress your supervisor.
Finally, at the Triangle’s peak is the author. You’re the one writing the letter, but it will be signed by your supervisor who may have certain pet peeves. You can’t worry about that. You have to write the way you write. Either your supervisor will appreciate that and give you the raise you deserve, or he’ll start giving more work to Jim. Either way, you win.
7. If you could go back in time and tell your high school self one tip that would improve your writing, what would it be?
Michelle, you’re a visual learner. Stop outlining. Stop drafting, and start diagramming.
I didn’t know anything about learning styles until I was almost finished writing my dissertation. I’m a multi-modal learner, and I spent my whole educational career thinking I was a read / write learner. I could have saved a lot of time if I had worked in the way that works for me.
8. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think is important or worth talking about?
Yes. Stop trying to write outside of your head. Spend more time brainstorming, and write more words during the brainstorming process.
Capture those key phrases and all their permutations. Use the recording feature on your smart phone. Capitalize on your morning commute or shower, and don’t leave a meeting without downloading the relevant bits to a swipe file.
A lot of my clients start the writing process by opening up a computer program and starting from a blank screen. I know of no artist who faces a canvas without a palette of color already mixed and ready to apply. Why would we as authors confront the page without our raw material likewise at hand?
9. Random Question: What's your favorite kind of candy?
Butterscotch. I’m not a big fan of sweets, and butterscotch is candy, but it's also salty. I like cinnamon red hots too.