The business of writing with Kate Hennessy

Kate Hennessy is a professional writer who splits her time between corporate writing, journalism, editing and communications consulting. Her love of writing goes beyond the offices of Australian businesses, however. She is also a journalist and writes weekly music reviews for Fairfax and other arts publications as well as travel features for newspapers and magazines. Kate presents our Business Writing Essentials and Professional Business Writing seminars. Here she tells us what she loves about writing, teaching, and her life as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and what inspired you?

Well, there's writing creatively and writing professionally. I do the latter for a living but I’ve written creatively for as long as I can remember. I read all the time as a kid. And I mean all the time: I didn't ride a bike; I read. Maybe that was my inspiration?

Kate HennessyAnother recollection is a short story I wrote as a young kid that my teacher loved. He told me what lines and language impressed him, specifically, and I remember feeling immeasurably proud, even important. The encouragement of kind teachers can make a lifelong impact! I also think writers tend to be observant in a very particular way and writing is the only outlet, or expression, for the detail of it. It feels necessary – more so than a ‘decision'.

How did you get into corporate writing?

I worked as a senior writer and editor at a corporate writing agency. As part of that job, I worked three days a week as the internal communications manager at Cisco so I left with both agency and in-house comms experience. It ended up being a pretty killer grounding in corporate writing because I left understanding the pressures that bear down on good writing when you're in the belly of the corporate beast but also with the rigour that applies to writing when you work in an agency.

What other types of writing do you do?

I split corporate writing and freelance journalism pretty much 50/50. A liveable wage is increasingly hard to pull from journalism alone (especially in Sydney) unless you're (a) not too fussy about your words, (b) write long-form pieces exclusively for titles that still pay decent word rates or (c) are great at working one interview or idea for multiple outlets. Though, even if I could do journalism exclusively, I wouldn’t. I really like my corporate clients. They are more responsive and organised than most editors, respect what I do, give me adequate time and resources to do it, and pay me fairly for it. What’s not to love?

Music reviews are my main area of journalism at present. I also do travel, arts, small business and health and wellbeing. My corporate work is varied – scripts for Channel 7, book editing, annual reports for Sydney Theatre Company, animation scripts for Sydney Opera House events and five years of hugely varied contracts with my long-stay client, Insurance Australia Group (IAG). My IAG clients are more like friends and colleagues these days.

What's the best time of day for you to write?

Whenever I'm in the zone. That can happen at any time and for music reviews, it can be late at night. Which is certainly the case when it’s a live gig review that’s due the following morning.

Do you have a daily writing routine?

Not really. My work changes all the time – what I do, where I do it, everything. I might be just building a routine, then drop it for a couple of months of intensive onsite work. Which leaves me squeezing in journalism at night again. Different versions of that same scenario play out over and over.

I’d like to have a stricter routine. My good friend and fellow Australian Writers' Centre presenter, Sue White, would be my first port of call for advice. She's full of ideas on how to be more productive … and practises what she preaches too!

Why do you think it’s important for people at work to know how to write well?

Every student who leaves my Business Writing Essentials course could answer this – I drum it into them! It’s incredibly important because it’s an issue of productivity. If, after three attempts, your readers are still confused, or have the wrong message, have you achieved your aim? Did you even know what your aim was? You may feel pleased you've used big words and possibly made something fairly simple or procedural sound important but have you achieved your aim?

In reality, you’ve probably spent too much time writing it and they’ve almost certainly spent too much time reading it. How is that a productive use of anyone’s time? Worse, did you feel frustrated writing it? Because your readers felt frustrated reading it, or even that they weren't smart or informed enough to grasp your fancy language, jargon and convoluted sentences.

Sometimes I look up at all the skyrises in the city and imagine all the people in them, scratching their heads, and I wonder why companies don't do more to combat the pervasiveness of over-formal or unclear writing in their businesses. I believe one hundred per cent that it would help their bottom line – and fast – if they did.

What do you love about teaching writing?

I have such respect for every student walking in the door – that they've been brave enough to tackle an area that might be a weakness, or because they know that better writing will help them and the many people they write for over their working lives. Writing can bring up lots of fears in people.

I like hearing about my students' writing predicaments or insights but, most of all, I love the looks on their faces when they realise how, and why, writing can be simpler. Generally, people's instinct is to be plain and direct and when they realise that's part of ‘plain English' and that plain English is a big part of good business writing, their tension lifts and slides away.

What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever been given?

‘Don't get it right, get it written' is a good one for non-creative writing. For creative writing, I think it's important to write in your own voice and be confident in developing it. It's the only one you've got!

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