Do You Need to be a Black Belt Writer?

31 May 2012

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Do you wish you could be a great writer?


If you want to be a great writer, do you also wish that you didn’t have to work through all the nagging little things like proper grammar and spelling?


The return on investment (ROI)

Despite working in business for nearly two decades and knowing about ROI from the point of ‘big’ strategic objectives, I had never thought about ROI as it relates to writing – the primary focus of my own career.


Then along came Mark Dykeman, business analyst and creator of the Thoughtwrestling blog, who wrote a fascinating post that dealt with this question: What do you get for your time, effort, money and emotion spent on doing something different?


Kung Fu novice

In the article, Mark spoke about the kung fu lessons he had recently begun taking – and how they helped him with other life lessons. He referred to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which talks about the 10,000 hours of solid practice needed to become a master of something.


He was sobered by how much effort was required just to achieve the first kung fu level (yellow belt), especially for a man in his forties who was rather out of shape. The idea of becoming a black belt seemed far away. He began to question the return on value of trying to achieve that high level.


He asked himself, “Is it worth the blood, sweat and tears for me to work towards a black sash in Kung Fu (assuming that I even want to)? And if I don’t have that long term goal, should I even bother learning Kung Fu?”


The real questions

Dykeman’s thoughts compelled me to think more deeply about similar questions to ask with regard to writing:

How good does my writing need to be – really?

Is the return on investment (ROI) of the time it takes to become a good (or great) writer worthwhile to me?


I’ve had students who aspired to become great writers. And although that’s an admirable goal, it caused many of them a great deal of stress.


Maybe they set that goal for themselves because a boss or another colleague criticized their writing. Maybe they were worried about losing their jobs if their writing didn’t improve.


What’s it worth to you?

To rephrase the question above, if you want to be a great writer, is it necessary to work through all of those nagging little things about proper grammar and spelling? In other words, do you have to be a ‘black belt’ at grammar?


The answer? It depends on the value you expect and what it’s worth to you.


Your writing does need to have a fairly high standard of grammatical accuracy to make sure that the reader will not be confused by what you write. But if you’re a non-native English speaker, no one expects ‘black belt’ grammar from you.


At the same time, however, don’t hope to have ‘black belt’ grammar without being willing to invest the necessary time to go through the levels from beginner to expert—just as a kung fu student has to move through all the levels from novice to master.


Would ‘green belt’ or ‘brown belt’ grammar be good enough for you? Only you have the right to decide what’s best for you, because only you know what the real return on investment is.


Decide what is worth your own time investment and don’t get stressed out when someone criticizes your grammar. (Their grammar probably isn’t all that great either!)


‘Black belt’ thinking

Your readers do, however, deserve ‘black belt’ thinking from you. And that’s why I keep hammering away about the THINK stage, where you think about the

--reader’s needs and expectations

--purpose of your document

--action the reader will need to take

--details you must include in the document to achieve its purpose and help the reader to act.


Poor or inadequate thinking results in poor writing, no matter how perfect the grammar.


Luckily, black belt thinking doesn’t take nearly the time that black belt grammar takes to achieve. It just requires your commitment to the process.


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