– OR – the revenge of Mrs. Gillette.
My senior AP English teacher was Mrs. Gillette. She was nearly as tiny as I, had a great sense of humor and excelled at teaching English. One week, in my senior year, we all filed into class and took our places at our desks, not suspecting the horror that awaited us. Cheerily, Mrs. Gillette instructed us that we were to take out paper and pens because we were going to write an essay. The topic was on the blackboard. We had 50 minutes.
If you’ve never written a real, by-the-book high school English essay, this is what one looks like: 3 sentence introduction. The third sentence is your thesis statement, which must be exactly 21-25 words long. 3 supporting paragraphs. A final paragraph starting with a rewording of your thesis statement and 2 more sentences.
We had less than 50 minutes to create this monster.
On Tuesday, we did it all again. And on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. 5 days of writing essays.
She did this to us more than once that year, so we actually got pretty good at writing essays. By the end of high school, I was a pretty decent writer. I was never great, but good enough that Mrs. Gillette was horrified to discover that I was going to major in engineering rather than English. Lovely thought, that, but I don’t think I would have been well suited to a liberal arts degree.
Off I went to an engineering school where the thesis statements were equations, not words. In the few liberal arts classes we were forced to take to make us “well rounded”, my professors were thrilled if you could create an actual sentence, so the bar for writing was set pretty low.
My writing skills rapidly deteriorated as I had no use for them.
In the real world, I somehow ended up as the technical writer for product user manuals. I was awarded this position simply because I spoke English and could touch type. Mostly it was because I could type. My big innovation was to use active voice instead of passive voice. I’m sure there was an Army technician somewhere who scratched his head at the instructions to ‘read the meter’ rather than seeing ‘the meter indication shall be noted’. Really, the state of the manuals was so bad that my meager writing skills were more than enough.
Eventually, my writing consisted of emails and PowerPoint bullets. But, by then, most product communication had devolved to an interesting picture and a snappy tagline. Welcome to the era of the soundbite.
Online Marketing has brought writing back
Online marketing is your website, blog, Facebook posts, Tweets, and all of your comments in forums and the like. It’s written word. There might be the occasional photo and video, but by and large, it’s words.
Mrs. Gillette must be laughing her butt off right now. All of us who forgot all those lessons so many years ago are now trying to get them back. Punctuation. Grammar. Spelling. The Oxford Comma. Its vs It’s. There, their, and they’re.
Like so many other people, I’m playing catchup and brushup to improve my writing skills. It’s necessary now if I’m going to be successful in business. I still struggle with shaking off all that corp-speak I used for so many years. “Paradigm-shift”. Really? How pretentious could we be?
I have a website design business and this blog, but if I can’t write well, I won’t be successful. If I’m not successful, I can’t help you be successful. So, I keep plugging away trying to get a little better with every post. Get closer to finding my true voice. I even posted 31 times in 31 days in August to help me learn to edit myself. I can’t say that I was entirely successful; I still have a very long way to go.
Writing well, especially for the internet, is so much more than just subject-verb-object. I read blogs like Copyblogger and Men With Pens to try to improve. I take classes and read books. I’m still trying to improve. My business depends on it.
How about you? Are you interested in improving your writing skills? Let me know in the comments below.