Judy Knighton | November 22, 2018
Developing better habits is hard. That’s the case whether you’re trying to eat a better diet, exercise more, or improve your writing.
Those who’ve studied what happens in our brain when we form a habit (and when we try to break one) tell us our brain runs in well-used grooves. Every time we repeat a pattern, we make it more likely we’ll use the same pattern next time, until the groove becomes so deep, the behaviour so entrenched, that we can barely imagine doing things differently. Even when we want to.
So we find ourselves standing by the fridge when we’re not hungry, or sitting down to watch the news after dinner instead of taking the 15-minute walk that would be better for us, or staying up late to finish watching a movie we knew we shouldn’t have started.
Part of the answer is to make little changes, day by day, repeating those until we have a new, more rewarding groove in which to run. That’s the idea behind diet and exercise programmes that lay out a set of recipes or a menu of activities for each day — not forever, but for at least 30 days.
We make the change one meal or one walk at a time, and let the future look after itself.
If you want to improve your writing, but the pressure of work means you fall back into bad habits just to get the job done, why not try a 30-day challenge?
Diagnose the habits you’d like to change, then tackle them one at a time.
What do you know you struggle with? What are the questions or comments you commonly get from peer reviewers? Have readers come back to you with questions about what you meant? If you’ve had a professional editor look at your writing, what improvements did they suggest?
Perhaps you struggle with meaningful headings. Perhaps your readers miss the point of what you’re saying or fail to understand what you want them to do. Perhaps peer reviewers try to rewrite your sentences.
Pick one thing, and only one, that you’d like to focus on.
Download the Write Plain Language Standard for a list you can use to guide your choices. (It’s free under a Creative Commons licence.)
Study up on the alternative plain language ways to do a better job in that one aspect of your writing. Have you decided you need better headings to help readers navigate your documents? Check out our blog posts on headings. Google ‘informative headings’. Ask a colleague who writes impressive headings to tell you how they do it. Sign up for a training course.
Then check the headings in every document to make sure they summarise the key message of their section, and follow a clear, logical order that helps the reader navigate the document.
Now make that one aspect of writing your focus for the next 30 days. In every document you write, as you develop and practise your skills, you’ll be forming new habits.