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Writing Is Like Policing on Horseback

This afternoon on KUOW radio station in Seattle, Washington, I listened to a story about Seattle police who do their work on horseback. The officer who works in the equine division described a situation in which the officers and horses are in the street taking a break. He said something like this:

People look up at us drinking our coffee sitting on horseback and say, "Well, that looks like an easy job." But they have no idea how many hundreds of hours go into training a 1200-pound horse to be calm in downtown traffic. It takes a lot of hard work to make it look easy.

The same is true of dancing, skiing, acting, ice skating–and writing. Like so many activities that look easy when they are done well, writing is a skill. It takes plenty of effort to make it look easy.

Many people compliment my writing. They tell me it is so simple and clear. I accept that as high praise–it is so simple. As someone who has been writing for decades, I hope my writing does seem simple. But it isn’t simple doing it. As with the equine police, a lot goes into what you see.

Here is my "simple" recipe:

I spend at least 30 minutes on each entry to this blog. The longer entries take me more than an hour. If my topic involves research (Test: How to Address an Envelope, Formatting User Instructions, etc.), it may take me 90 minutes or more from start to finish.

My writing usually goes quickly because I know what I will write. I never just start writing. Sometimes, though, I start with a seed of an idea (for example, the equine police officer’s job looking easy) and see where the topic takes me.

Usually I write a first draft that includes everything but a conclusion. Then I reread and edit. In this step, I catch the mistakes I have made. Although I make a few mistakes in punctuation and grammar, most of my errors are lapses of logic–places where something I suggested does not flow from the facts I have provided. Other times I have exaggerated or misspoken, and my editing task is to pare down to the truth.

Once I have eliminated errors and untruths, I read aloud. I listen for places where the words are jarring, and I tinker with them until they flow. I also notice dull words and repetition, and I spend time polishing and thinking of fresh expressions. I cut whole sentences that may be well written but aren’t necessary. (For example, the paragraph above used to have another sentence about telling the truth. But since I had made my point, I cut it.)

Next I typically read through in search of a conclusion. Occasionally something brilliant comes to me quickly. Most of the time, though, brilliant is a level I don’t quite reach, and I settle for satisfactory. If you, my reader, were paying me a lot of money for my words, I would stay with it until brilliance blossomed. But since you are reading for free, I quit with only a satisfactory conclusion if it’s time to make dinner or watch my favorite TV show (or if my daughter announces, "Mom! You said you’d be done in 10 minutes!").

When I have written the conclusion, I do a final check for spelling errors, subject-verb agreement that may have gotten out of whack with editing, and any other tiny blemish. Then I publish.

The next day I read the entry again, and sometimes I find something that isn’t as clear as I had thought. So I fix it and republish.

I go through the steps above even though–or because–I have been writing for 20+ years.

Easy, isn’t it? Just like being an equine police officer.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “Writing Is Like Policing on Horseback”

  • Hi Lynn, what a great piece. I’m wondering how much time you spend on headlines, because this one certainly drew me in!

    I’m very interested in your thoughts on brilliant/satisfactory. I sometimes find that my own writing is simpler (and resonates more with readers) when I stick to it being ‘okay’ ‘good enough’ ‘that’ll do for the job’ – when I aim for brilliance my own words get more tangled, and there’s less room for others to join in.

    For me that’s one of the fun things about blogging. We don’t just go for ‘satisfactory’ (although I’m not sure it’s the right word) because the service is free, but because it’s the right approach anyway in order to: sound like yourself, engage with your readers, leave space for comments.

    Thanks again for prompting me to stop by – and leaving me the space to join in:-)


  • Joanna, thanks for reading and asking. Let me mention headlines first. I try to make the headline engaging and truthful (truthfully representing what the piece is about). For this piece, I started with “Writing Is a Breeze,” which actually fits neither of my criteria. Then when I was halfway through the piece and realized where it was going, I changed it to the current headline. My challenge with headlines is to keep them short enough.

    As for brilliance, I agree with you. Brilliance and simplicity go hand in hand, and when we work too hard at cleverness or finding the “perfect” word, our writing can feel overworked.

    When I mentioned brilliance, I was thinking about the conclusion. A metaphor would be wrapping a gift. After we have boxed the gift and wrapped it in paper, we add ribbon. Sometimes the ribbon and bow complete the package perfectly–brilliant! At other times they are simply okay–they complete the package satisfactorily but don’t achieve beauty or elegance.

    In blog entries I sometimes feel when I have finished that I have offered a perfectly wrapped present. It’s brilliant! I am glowing because I have found just the right ribbon and bow to complete the gift. I can’t wait to share it and see how people react. At other times it’s just a nice gift adequately presented.

    With this blog I do not have a client waiting for something brilliant from me before he okays my invoice. So I can stop at satisfactory when I need to. Whew! I am relieved about that.

    Many thanks for your conversation.


  • Hi Lynn,

    John Wesley, an 17th century English preacher, used to travel from preaching station to preaching station on horseback and would manage to read along the way while on his horse (I don’t know about writing, but I think I might do some research about that). I’ve ridden a horse. I cannot imagine it, personally.

    I am sometimes surprised how much time I do take drafting and editing my writing. It is good to know I am not alone and that good writing like yours is born from such effort.

    I appreciate your image of a wrapped gift for a complete piece of writing. I have been know to wrap a gift in the Sunday comics sometimes, but I always feel a little ashamed of the fact. Same with my writing, too.

    Thanks for this well-wrapped gift.


  • Robin, you are not alone. I often use the Sunday comics as giftwrap. It shows a wise conservation of resources, doesn’t it?

    Confession: I have never ridden a horse–at least not that I remember.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  • Lynn, I wanted to thank you for this blog as it changed the way I think about wrinting an article/essay/paper. After reading your article, for some reason, I feel like more confortable to start writing process. It gave me a seed to start thinking about writing an artile in more positive way. All these days, there is a little bit rust sitting in mind about how to start a writing process. This is a brilliant piece for someone just like me.

    Thanks again.

    Srini P

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