The Secret to Writing Better: Be Dumber

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Written by James Dowd,
• 8 min read
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Don’t skip ahead, read part 1 to get a full plate of dumb advice.

You know that feeling of trying to write something at work when you have it all in your head, but you end up just staring at the cursor. The words are there, but they’re not, and the clock is ticking. And so you sit, thinking, ruminating, staring off at nothing, and you call it writing.

Like a soldier at war, business writing consists of long periods of soul-wrenching boredom and confusion punctuated occasionally by brief moments of frenzied excitement and absolute terror. And yet, so many of us pursue it. Hell, you’re even reading this article to get better at it, and I spent the time writing the damn thing! Why? Because we have to. It’s part of the job — nearly every job, in fact. And so, we’re fools, running right toward that war, but at least we’re in it together.

We’re in for some shit, for sure, especially when you consider the environments in which we write and work. Regardless of our workplace or industry, we all operate in an achievement-oriented culture that celebrates our knowledge and accumulated skills, as well as our ability to display it or unleash it on demand. Admiration, and self-fulfillment, and all that stuff we crave, exist here. That’s what makes it difficult to admit when we’re ignorant or incapable, especially in terms of putting ideas on paper.

Our average workplace environments are structured so that the subordinate does more asking, and the boss does more telling. It’s considered general ignorance to ask questions, even though it’s in the pursuit of understanding. We all try to exist in our problem-solving culture in which knowing things and being able to tell others, as opposed to asking others, is what’s valued. And, those who “just get it” or who find ways to succeed without appearing ignorant are more commonly praised and promoted. So, our egos prevent us from asking questions — from revealing our ignorance or falling on our faces in failure and disgrace — because we’re always in pursuit of success. And so we pretend that we know and are capable. We act like we can do anything. We fake it until we make it. Even if that means we do nothing, we learn nothing, we write nothing. But that is a surefire way to fail at life.

That’s why, when it comes to putting words on the page, we must break from the ordinary and expected. We must embrace our ignorance and chase dumb. We must be the idiot that is surely unworthy of this job. Why? Because it’s the clearest path to writing success in the workplace.

What makes writing dumb great is that it’s all internal where no coworkers or bosses can see it. It’s in your head. It’s private. In here, you’re perfectly allowed to be an absolute dumb-dumb. You don’t have to know things. You don’t have to be right. You don’t have to be perfect. No one’s in here to be impressed. No one can see any of this. No one can hear these words bouncing around in your brain. No one can hear your inner voice reading yourself my words inside your head right now. It’s all for you, and you alone, and in here, dumb is good. It means you’re trying, and leaning, and advancing. Plus, admiration, and self-fulfillment, and all that stuff we crave, exist here, too.

So, we start in here, in your brain, and we feel free to fail in ridiculously dumb ways, and then we’ll work outward from there.

To begin, before we get into any writing, ever, let us first all humbly admit that we’re idiots in some capacity, that this desire to even try to express ourselves through these little symbols is foolish, and that every word we type will be a risk, but it will always be a risk worth taking.

We must ignore those imaginary critics in your brain who haven’t even seen these unwritten words yet, no matter how accomplished, powerful, or knowledgeable they may be.
We must follow the path we see fit for ourselves, even when there’s no clear way through.

We must agree that we do not know everything. It’s not our brilliance that we should celebrate, but our awareness that we’re not brilliant at all, because that self awareness is something worthy of admiration, and self-fulfillment, and all that stuff we crave.

Be dumb enough to believe.

Consider a room full of desks and people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities all silently writing around you. From their pens flow every idea, every point of view, every word. It’s all there, in multitude. Whatever you want to write, someone else is already writing it in this very room.

Out there in this sea of hard-working people are blog posts, memos, emails, screenplays, Broadway musicals, comic books, and crime novels. There are terrible ones and great ones, and everything in between. There are even boring old powerpoint presentations, newsletters, student essays, and thank you cards to grandma. No matter the format or medium, everyone is writing and with so much out there, it all seems to be a race to find out who can get their work out to the world the fastest.

So what’s different about them? Why are they working so fast while you watch? Why does it seem so easy for them to keep their heads down and their words flowing? What sets them apart from you? What will ensure they finish when you don’t? What makes them so special?
Answer: they don’t realize they’re in that room, let alone that it exists. What’s holding you back from finishing your work and being a more efficient writer is that you’re quite aware of everyone around you. You’re looking around while they focus. You’re comparing yourself to everyone and everything. You’re overthinking it all, and worrying too much, and ruminating too much, and drafting too much, and editing too much, making excuses instead of writing like everyone around you.

It’s not enough to just be in the room — to feel the energy of art being made, to say that you too are one of these special types. No, you have to contribute. Writing has never been a great spectator sport. You didn’t come here to watch. You came to write dammit.

So, your challenge is not merely to write, but to lose the basic realization that the world is full of writers, that this world we live in is that very room. Yes, you are one in a great sea of minds, but to succeed, you will have to forget about it. You will have to put your head down and work. You will have to shut out the world, and you will have to shut off your anxious mind. You have to stop comparing education, awards, and job titles. You will have to stop thinking so damn much. And, you will have to do it without the everyday aid of reality TV, social media, and whatever else gives your brain a rest.

You will have to embrace a mindful mindlessness that maintains your focus on the words and the words alone. You will have to pretend that you are the only writer in this world, even for just a moment. You have to embrace opportunities to become a bit dumber to reality. It’s the only way to write.

Embrace your dumb.

Don’t ever be afraid to be dumb, or to make mistakes, or to be the fool, or the outcast. But, most especially, don’t be afraid to be dumb in the things you do for yourself, as yourself, inside your own brain, where you’re free from judgement, critique, attack, and all that negative stuff.

Admit you don’t know things and chase after knowledge and ability at every opportunity without any fear of someone finding out.

Grow in all the good ways. Have the audacity to go after your goals with everything you’ve got; chase after them with a stick! You’ll be much happier when you do. And, you must never get to the point where your confidence prevents you from doing the simple things in life and in work.

As soon as you get to the point where you think, “I’ve got this. I’ve mastered this,” that’s when you start cutting corners. That’s when you actually make dumb mistakes that ruin your writing. That’s when you stop exploring new ways of working.

You must be open to making mistakes in your head and on the page. You must be comfortable taking steps, not leaps, and doing so every single time. The moment you think you can no longer fail is when you fail most miserably. But, when you know you can fail, and you also know it’s worth it to try, that’s when you’re sure to succeed.

So, go on, go be dumb.


Looking to write more dumb? Reach out to the Digital Surgeons team of writers about Writing Workshops, or get the little dumb book Write Dumb: Writing Better by Thinking Less, written by DS Creative Director James Dowd.