Ever since the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, began on Feb. 9, my wife, Lisa, hasn’t watched much of anything else on TV. Figure skating has emerged as her favorite sport, although she doesn’t seem too impressed when I tell her that as a young boy in Minneapolis, I learned to skate at almost the same time I learned to walk.
I’m not as enamored with figure skating as Lisa, but admiring the ease and beauty with which skaters glide across the ice, gracefully and athletically executing Axels and Salchows, reminds me of the challenge of consistently writing well.
Although it does not require the physicality of skating, writing well — like skating well — takes time, patience and determination. Do you know how many would-be authors have written for years and continue to receive rejections from book publishers? Writing, if you think about it, is a lifelong skill with many similarities to figure skating. Here are three of them.
1. Precision is required.
In order for U.S. Olympic figure skaters Nathan Chen to perform six quadruple jumps and Mirai Nagasu to land a triple axel, both athletes timed their sequences, refined their routines and executed flawlessly. As a result, they made Olympic history.
For their words to be effective, writers must avoid sloppiness and instead strive for crisp sentences with clear meaning and concise language. Not every line needs to be impeccable, but you don’t want your words to fall flat, either. People you don’t know — including prospective clients and potential employers — often form their first impressions based on how you present yourself through your writing. Make sure your words are as professional as the rest of you.
2. Style counts.
From the outfits they wear to the music they choose, figure skaters set the tone for their performances. Some routines are playful and spry; others dramatic and elegant. They are judged and scored based on how effectively they perform, and they want to leave lasting impressions for all the right reasons.
Take a look at your Facebook and Twitter feeds and make note of how many posts contain incorrect (or no) punctuation, misspelled (or misused) words and incomplete sentences. Not impressive, is it? The people who wrote those posts lack style. They may not know better, or they may not care. But one thing is certain: If they write like that at work, too, readers — colleagues, customers, bosses and who knows who else — are likely to deduct points. And that makes their message less effective.
3. Practice makes perfect.
While many figure skaters train for at least four hours every day, you don’t need to write for nearly as long on a daily basis. Simply practicing good grammar in emails and ensuring that your message makes sense can go a long way toward making you a better writer. Also, when you read other people’s writing, whether in an email or in a book or magazine, pay attention to what you like, what you don’t like and why. Does your manager convey a complicated proposal in two or three concise sentences? Maybe a magazine article explains how to accomplish a detailed task in easy-to-follow steps. Or ask yourself why you can’t put down that novel and go to bed.
Many people who don’t consider themselves “writers” still make time to “freewrite” — a practice that author Joel Friedlander says “helps to liberate your writer’s voice and connects you to the vibrant stream of creativity that lies just under the surface of our ordinary thinking.” No specific topic. No self-editing. No worries. Freewriting in longhand, usually in a journal, helps you write better simply because you’re putting words on paper. You’re using language to craft sentences, and sometimes that’s enough. In other words, you’re practicing.
Writing, like skating, takes a long time to perfect, and most of us never come close to perfection. Even Chen fell near the end of his free skate in PyeongChang. But he got up and kept skating. What else could he do?
Likewise, the rest of us need to keep writing. Because if we want to succeed at work and in life, what else can we do?