You are What You Write… So Who are You?

by Susan Feehan

Show me someone’s writing and I’ll show you who they are. Computer software is often used to pinpoint authorship, using writing quirks to capture criminals and save lives. Soon, software may take us into a world where we can predict which of us will become online trolls before we start any anti-social behaviour.

We are what we write, each with a unique writing fingerprint. We make instant judgments about writing that hits our inboxes; we weigh up the sender’s credibility and trustworthiness, and all without the use of software. We may feel guilty about our snap judgements and their subjective nature, yet they are easily justifiable. We lay ourselves bare with our words, showing the full battery of worries, ambitions, quirks and foibles, and we’ve become expert at sensing these clues, using them to paint accurate profiles of the writer.

Just show a piece of your work to three or four people willing to take part in an experiment — writing that’s between 150 and 300 words is fine. Ask your helpers for three adjectives to describe what they’ve read. They will offer more, wanting to justify their reactions. Stop them. Overthinking will skew the results.

You’ll hope for words like clear, decisive, inspiring. But you might get confused, rambling, and dull. Whatever the verdict, you’ll probably agree — if you’re being honest — that it’s a fair snapshot of your state of mind while writing.

While our personalities show in our language skills, the real issues are there before we write a word.

When we write: ‘It is understood that a decision will need to be made…’ we’re showing reluctance to own action when we could say, ‘I/we need to make a decision…’

When we write: ‘A small cut in staff numbers will be necessary to achieve financial solvency…’ we show vagueness we could avoid by saying, ‘I/we need to cut 50 jobs to return the company to profit.’

Often we’re afraid to write short, concise sentences for fear of being thought terse. We’re afraid to get straight to the point, in case we’ve picked the wrong one. We qualify words, making our meaning indirect. Sometimes readers give up, either from boredom or the belief that we have nothing to say.

Clear writing exposes exactly what we think, and it’s scary. The temptation is to hide behind templates and blueprints, copying someone else’s answer on how to write well. But this stops us from improving our skills, and invites readers to see us as a copycat, someone who hasn’t earned attention by hard work.

Blending in is a dangerous business approach to take in a world awash with words. Our deepest need is to be authentic, particularly through our words. To stand out, we just need to discover how to be the best version of ourselves in any given circumstance.

First, recognise that writing is a process that reveals our thinking through the way we use language. These are the stages:

• Purpose
We have to be brave enough to nail our colours to the mast, open to criticism. Lack of purposeful writing invites a ‘so-what?’ comment. When we add long-term vision to short-term goals and strategy, we raise our game, driven by a higher cause, one that’s unique to us.

• Readers
When we write, we’re aiming to have a conversation with someone who isn’t in the same room, anticipating what they would ask — not just what we want to say. We can tell when we, as readers, are being ignored.

• Research
A common writing mistake is to use everything you know. It’s a sign you don’t know enough to start. Insecurity shows through and the writing feels thin. If we are writing 1,000 words, we need to know enough to write 10,000 before we start. What we leave out shows between the lines as gravitas and writing confidence. And it forces tight, clear writing because of the pressure to include more.

• Structure
A clear plan is the sign of an organised mind. We need a writing touchstone to keep us on track. For an email, it may be one or two words that sum up each paragraph: overall strategy, costs/timetable, problems/solutions. The aim is to organise your thoughts so you answer questions just as your reader wants to hear them.

• Language skills
Simple words used in short, tight sentences show a writer with confidence, someone who avoids fancy language, letting their thinking impress readers.

Writing is a great diagnostic tool for highlighting where we need to do further work. Filter clear thoughts into well-crafted words and you’ll do more than change who you are: you’ll change your world.

Susan Feehan is a journalist, university lecturer, business writing mentor, screenwriter, and the author of How to Write Well — when you don’t know where to start.

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