“Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”
— Paul Graham
The sun’s been down for hours and you are alone with a warm drink next to your laptop. You’re burning the midnight oil again in the back room, building your online business, and you know you need to put another post up on your blog, but you’re just not sure what, exactly, to write about.
The struggle of building your business and hustling on the side is that you don’t always have the time and luxury to write whenever you want, and while the idea of editors, proofreading, and revising your essays sounds great-you need to write something and write it now.
For people working a full-time job during the day, juggling families, and responding to other demands, having ample time to fill notebooks, draft, and re-write sounds like a pipe dream.
How can you quickly improve your writing?
What tools are there beyond grammar and spellchecker to make sure you’re doing your best work? In the world of online and email communication, writing powerful copy makes all the difference.
Sometimes we need tactical, specific, and immediately useful tips to make our writing better. Most writing tips, for me, always seem to feel good — and then I struggle with the actual writing and re-writing. How do you transform the writing tips of Stephen King, Stephen Pressfield, Seth Godin, and Ray Bradbury (amazing storytellers, all) into actionable outcomes?
Here are 10 of my favorite strategies that help when you’re self-editing, scrambling to make ends meet, and holding both a beer and a coffee in your hands while trying to write-and want to do your best work.
1. Start with a story.
Begin your piece with a fable that illustrates your point and shows the reader what it is that you’re talking about. Develop a scene and a scenario where people can nod their heads and say, yes, I see, that happens to me. I can picture myself doing that.
Despite how useful facts and lists are, stories are what resonate. We’re pulled into the grip of a helicopter crash, and most of us can’t look away when we see bright lights or hear loud noises. It’s the pull of the story and the unknown that captures our attention. Stories are memorable, and we can tell and re-tell them; they are, in fact, how we wire information into our brains.
Great writers on the web today hook readers in with stories, creating fictional (or narrative non-fictional) scenes with detail, specificity, and color.
Here are two great examples:
DANIELLE LAPORTE, ON MANAGING & LOVING MONEY:
“No one ever taught me how to manage money. My folks were young and working, Catholic High School didn’t give me any tips, and I skipped college. So that left me and my Visa card, which mysteriously showed up in the mail on my nineteenth birthday. I promptly went shopping that weekend. And the next weekend.”
If you look closely, the post is actually about a book launch, but the first paragraph isn’t about the book, the author, or the call-to-action at the end of the post. It’s a relatable, tangible story that outlines the problem all to common to many people: the problem of managing money, and the story of what happened when she got her first free credit card.
And a second example:
Caleb Wojcik, on The Metrics You Should Measure:
“You know the rush. A guest post you’ve written goes live on a huge site, you finally launch the product you’ve been working on for months, or an older article of yours gets Gizmodo’d. You watch your traffic spike and you can’t peel yourself away from the analytics for the whole day.
‘Look at all those visitors!’ you yell to your significant other as they feign interest.”
This post is about what you measure when you’re evaluating your blog, website, traffic, or product. The introductory story, however, is about that feeling you get when you see a post of yours go live, hit the charts, or make the rounds in Twitter-and the way your significant other may or may not be involved in your online business.
You can also use this strategically in personal emails. For example, rather than jumping to the question you’re dying to ask, you can start out with a quick story (or set the scene for where you are). This situates the reader (on the other end, perhaps in some place far different than where you are) within the framework of your life. Like Instagram but with words, you can give a little snippet of your life through language:
For example, change typical emails that begin:
“Hey Ryan, how are you? Hope you’re well.”
To a quick setting of the scene-showing where you are and what’s in your life:
“Hey Ryan,The other day, I was walking through the streets of San Francisco and grumbling about the never-ending fog. I realized that the city was like a refrigerator. Now that I’m in New York, I miss the air-conditioning and I also miss many of my friends like you dearly. It reminded me to email you and say hello. I hope you’re well.”
In both blog posts and in emails, using stories helps you illustrate your point and takes general advice and makes it something the reader can see and feel.
2. Start with a question.
Much of life, and blog posts, are paradoxes, not answers. Starting with the answer first can be terrifying (and worse, inaccurate or incomplete).
We revisit the same ideas over and over again not because we’ve conclusively decided, but because each topic is worth thousands of conversations. We need the reminders, we meditate on the ideas, and we each have our own flavor and take on the issue. In a recent New York Times Opinion piece about the suffering in Syria, the author opens the essay with a question that haunts human philosophy:
“Does the torrent of suffering ever abate — and can one possibly find any point in suffering?”
You don’t need to answer the question to write a great story or essay. Begin with a question, and add your thoughts.
3. Play with the use of first, second, and third person narrative.
First person is filled with “I” statements — great when you know the author, or you have a relationship with the person doing the writing. Second person uses “you” all the time — and can be a wonderful tool for creating empathy and describing a scene that you want the reader to inhabit — but can become bossy quickly with excessive use. Third person focuses on the scene or the action from an anonymous observer within the room.
Most of the time, we don’t actually care about the writer. Your reader wants to know exactly how the writing affects him or her-and whether or not the reading is going to matter to them specifically Right from the start, you should paint a picture of the person or scene and show the action happening.
While first-person can be a tremendous tool as a writer, many bloggers (myself included) are often far too liberal in writing our experiences. Luckily, there’s a quick way to fix this: write the post you would normally write, and then edit selectively to remove the “I” from a couple of paragraphs.
Take a paragraph that looks like this, for example:
“I was tired and hungry from a long day and the rain was beating down on my bike helmet. I didn’t want to work anymore-I was completely exhausted and ready to hit the hay. But I knew how important it was to continue to get this project out the door-it was my first real project as an entrepreneur, and delivering it mattered.”
And turn it into this (reducing the use of I statements-but still narrative):
“The rain beat down on my bike helmet. It was a long and tiring day. Sometimes it feels better to hit the bed instead of continuing to work-but I wanted to impress my newest client. Getting projects out the door on time is critical for first-time entrepreneurs. It was important to deliver, and deliver well.”
You’ll know when removing the first person is great when the paragraph stands on its own without the use of the first person narrative.
Take this post by Chase Reeves on “How Much You Should Be In Your Business?” — the opening sentence is focused on the reader (the second person). For the sake of contrast, I’ll rewrite the opener in two different ways as a point of comparison.
Original (Second Person): “You’re here because you want to create a business that supports you. You want to build something that earns and affords you the life you aim for.”
First Person: “The more important thing to my business is creating something that supports me-something that affords me the life I want and creates earnings I can live off of.”
Third Person: “It’s clear why building a business is critical — it’s a form of support. It’s a source of earnings and creates a desirable lifestyle.”
To me, the original (second person) option is the most powerful-it connects with the reader, has them nodding yes, that’s my vision, and sets the parameters for the post. The first person version makes me wonder why I care about their business, and the third person feels dry and impersonal.
If you’ve written something and you know the content is good-but it’s not resonating in the way that you want-try re-writing it from a different point of view. That might be the trick to creating the snappy writing you want.
4. Talk it through.
Start with the communication vehicle you’re most comfortable with. Most people get stuck writing because they haven’t done it enough. They haven’t sat at the computer and made writing a habit, and each time they do eventually get to the screen, they agonize over each word choice and sentence until they’ve beaten the poor essay to death, 500 words and 2 bottles of wine later, declaring, “I’ll never write again, no, not me!”
If you’re stuck on writing, chat with a friend and use voice recorder, or stomp around your office or hallway and talk things out. Much of great conversation and thinking is done while moving-why should we sit and expect the great ideas to pour out of us once we’ve relegated our bodies to stillness? Start talking, start recording, and go for a walk. Many a mile I’ve walked with an earphone in my ear and a voice recorder on, pretending to talk to someone else while I’m actually just talking to myself.
5. Write the outcome you want first-by beginning with the ending.
Start with the ending, and the desired action. Sometimes the posts I write are creative, lyrical, poetic, and exploratory-that’s fine. Other times, I want something, and I want something specific. Perhaps it’s a donation to charity water, or a sign-up to my latest writing workshop. Each time, I think carefully and specifically about the person who will be reading the essay, and the end of the piece, and what action I want them to take.
Step one: write the desired outcome. Before writing your post, write the action or outcome that you want people to do. How do you want them to take action?
For example, a desired outcome might be getting people to sign up and enroll for One Month’s Content Marketing class. So, I begin by writing this outcome down:
Ryan goes to the website, reads my post, and nods. Yes, he’s working through all these problems I’m articulating. He really wants something to help him with building his audience and online business. Why does he click on the opt-in at the end? Something is really compelling — he clicks because he feels like the author completely understands the frustrations he’s having. He feels like his issue has been heard. So, here’s what I’ll write at the end: Want to get better at building your audience and writing content that actually gets shared? Sign up for One Month Content Marketing.
Step two: Outline the puzzle pieces (usually I use post it notes across my desk) that create a story framework that will lead to this desired outcome:
- Start with a story-introduction that elucidates the situation or pain point;
- Add in background information and expert details;
- Create the framework for a solution to the problem with suggested steps;
- End with a call to action and final solution (your recommended solution).
6. Write about things you know.
Write about things that seem incredibly obvious to you (and that you’re perhaps overlooking). Describe how you do things, and how you sort your day. Pay attention to the questions people ask you at conferences, in email, and during dinner conversations for clues to what people want to know. Surprisingly, people are incredibly different and what you do may be novel to someone else.
7. Be incredibly specific.
Clichés and abstract thinking are painful to read and prevalent across every type of writing. The solution to clichés is to get incredibly specific-start detailing the scene and describe who is doing what, where you are, and what is happening. Examples are more powerful than anecdotes.
“It was grueling, and I was exhausted. I’d never worked so hard in my life.”
Can be turned into something much more specific, with details about who, what, where, when, and why:
“My arms were quivering and shaking; in retrospect, doing a 26-mile run the day before writing my launch essay was probably not the best strategy. I could barely keep my fingers above my keyboard.”
8. After you’ve written your essay, go back and delete the first and the last paragraph.
After you’ve written your post or essay, go back and delete the first and last paragraph. The body usually contains the most of the “meat” of the post, and many writers amble on too long in the introductions and conclusions. Try deleting it and shortening it to make it sweet and punchy.
9. Mimic great writers you like.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If you’re stuck, use Evernote to copy and trace patterns that you like. I like to save out great essays and drafts from my favorite writers, print them, and then highlight them to study how people write effectively. Behind the words that you enjoy the most are patterns and clues to great writing.
- Email headings: Pay attention to what you click on in emails-what were the five emails you opened first today? What did the headlines say? Jot those down. Circle words that felt great. Were they long or short? What made you want to click? Take one you like and flip it around to become something that works for your business, idea, or model.
- Start with a bang. Use powerful ledes. Not sure what a lede is? (It’s the bullet or grab at the beginning of a story, made clear in the first paragraph) — skim 5 opening paragraphs of the New York Times with a highlighter and see what you like about each one. Convert it to your own style.
- End with a boom. Wrap up the writing with a punchy statement, a leading question, or a call to action. If you’ve deleted your first and last paragraphs, perhaps there was one sticky statement you wanted to keep-perhaps distilling that into one sentence will do the trick.
10. Write less and link more.
Find examples and point to them. It’s perfectly okay to not reinvent the wheel — it can be equally valuable to curate great content or showcase your process of discovery if it’s lead you to a great outcome or conclusion.
Here are three relevant articles on how to be a better writer:
- 17 Tips for Getting Unstuck and Back Into Creative Flow, on Scoutie Girl
- Why You Should Write Daily, on Zen Habits.
- How to Develop a Writing Habit, by Mattan Griffel
In todays’ world of digital and fractured communication, writing is more essential than almost any other skill-when you get better at writing, you get better at everything.
Writing isn’t just a tool for communication — it’s a tool for creative generation and unlocking what’s within your mind. It’s a tool for discovery, search, synthesis and re-wiring. Writing regularly is not just a means to create content, but is itself a tool to generate ideas and crystalize ideas. Whenever you can, use a notebook, use Evernote, google docs, or another system to capture your ideas and practice collecting (and imagining) ideas.
The more you write, the easier it gets, just like any other habit.
When I first began writing, it could take me 6 to 8 hours to write a short post. Today, I can start and finish a post in under an hour if I’ve been thinking about it during the week. Writing has gotten easier to do because I keep it up as a habit. I use writing and sketching regularly as a means to generate ideas. My notes become stories, my stories become paragraphs, my thinking wanders over the page, and then I pour content into the computer.
But when you’re pressed for time-or you’re stuck in the here and now of needing to write a post, having someone to tell you that “practice” and “consistency” are the best tools to get better at writing doesn’t help you with the post that you’ve got to find a way to write — right now.