Too many writers are caught up with thoughts of whether or not they are any good. We are quite the neurotic bunch, aren’t we? But what if all this self-doubt was actually self-destructive? What if there was no such thing as a “good writer“?
Most people’s definitions of “good writing” vary. What one reader loves, another one hates. For example, J.K. Rowling, one of the most popular and most successful writers alive today, is often criticized for her prose (too many adverbs, some say). Similarly, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was called a “dud” by many of his contemporaries.
And of course, this goes for just about any other so-called “great” writer. There are those that love these writers and those that don’t. And perhaps, that’s perfectly fine. Because maybe what it means to be good is really just our way of saying “I like this” or “I don’t like this.”
What if there was no such thing as “good writing”?
What if there was only effective writing?
What would that change for your and me the next time we sit down to do our work?
I’ve been coaching and teaching writers for over a decade, and I can tell you with complete certainty that there is no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes “good writing.” It’s a myth.
What we often think of as “good writing” is merely effectively communicating a clear message to a particular audience. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can get on with our job, which is not to be good, but to be clear.
Please, writers, let’s conclude this obsession with whether or not we are a good writer and instead start trying to be an effective writer.
There is no such thing as good writing. There is only effective writing.
Tips for being a good, I mean effective, writer
There are six things you can do to be a better (ahem, more effective) writer. The following is what I recommend (click the links to read articles on each subject):
- Read.Good writers read. It’s that simple. Words are the lifeblood of great writing. There’s no way to get good without lots of valuable input.
- Get an editor. A good writer recognizes he needs help. He can’t do this on his own (neither can you). You need to get someone to critique your writing, someone you trust. I suggest a peer editor for starters.
- Capture ideas. A good writer is constantly gathering creative input. Ideas are the inspiration for artists and writers. You need to have a system for collecting them. A great tool to help you do this is Evernote.
- Write every day. This cannot be overlooked. It’s essential. You can’t get good without practice. Even if only for a few minutes, you need to write every single day.
- Rewrite. An essential part of writing is rewriting,
distilling the fluff down to some core content that will actually make a difference. This is hard, but important. Stephen King calls this “killing your darlings.” And for good reason. It ain’t pretty. But it’s necessary.
- Get inspired. Hard to explain, but there’s a part of the writing process that is mysterious. You can’t take full responsibility for what you create. A good writer knows how to avail herself to the Muse. She knows inspiration is like breathing for the creative spirit.
You could also get outside your comfort zone and join me for a free video training to learn my three keys for effective writing. Writing is simple, but it’s not easy. Why not learn proven techniques to help you structure your writing?
Good writing resources
Speaking of reading, here are some books and resources that may help:
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Eats, Shoots, & Leaves by Lynne Truss
- The Writer’s Manifesto by Jeff Goins
- Don’t Hit Publish (a free tool to help you decide when it’s time to publish a blog post)
The world needs better writers
But wait. Isn’t there such a thing as bad writing? Yes, we’ve all seen lazy, ineffective prose. So I’m not saying that you don’ have to try. The bottom line, though, is that if you’re constantly chasing good, you’re never going to feel good enough. What we need is for you, the writer, to be effective. To be clear. To connect. And when you do that, your writing will be just fine. I promise.
At a time when more people have something to say, and the Internet is everyone’s megaphone, sometimes the best voices don’t always get heard. There’s a lot of noise and little clarity right now. We need you to be effective more than ever, so I hope you’ll take the time to hone your voice, craft that message, and write with excellence.
Because this gift of writing we’ve received can be squandered. Your message can fall on deaf ears and be ineffective. And what a shame that would be. And if you need more help on deciding if your writing is good enough to share, check out this free tool: Don’t Hit Publish.
What do you think it takes to be a good writer? Or is there even such a thing? Share in the comments.
All good writers know the best way to improve your writing is to write. And the second best way?
Study the craft.
Reading books can take you further?–?and faster?–?on your journey toward becoming a better writer. For a few dollars and a few hours of your time, you can absorb the strategies and “secret sauce” of the master storytellers.
I’ve read dozens of books on writing, and I’m always searching for titles that I haven’t read yet, or new ones that touch on a topic I’m diving deep on at the moment. While I’m not a novelist, I also enjoy reading books about writing fiction because I believe there’s much that nonfiction writers can learn from the craft of fiction.
Here’s a handful of writing-craft books from my shelf (and the Kindle app on my iPhone) that I believe can help you become a better writer:
1. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser
William Zinsser was a journalist, author, and writing instructor at Yale. His book On Writing Well is a classic among writers and has sold nearly 1.5 million copies in the 40 years since it was published. It’s one of the first books I recommend to anyone seeking to improve their writing. Zinsser packs several practical lessons into his book, including this gem:
“All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative?–?good old-fashioned storytelling?–?is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug.”
2. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
About a dozen years ago, mega-best-selling author Stephen King wrote a book about the craft of writing that became an instant bestseller: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. After telling the story of how he became the writer he is today, King devotes the second half of the book to sharing his writing strategies, like his suggestion that you should write for your “Ideal Reader”:
“I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’ For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha. Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader.”
3. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips
Ernest Hemingway never codified his insights on writing into a book, but he did share his thinking on the topic in commissioned articles; letters to his agents, publishers, and friends; and through his novels. Ernest Hemingway on Writing is a collection of his insights on the craft of writing, and includes several practical and inspiring tips.
“You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across?–?not to just depict life?–?or criticize it?–?but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it.”
4. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
The prolific science-fiction author Ray Bradbury collected the lessons he had learned about the craft during his long and successful career in Zen in the Art of Writing. Bradbury’s advice?
“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is?–?excited.”
5. Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Verlyn Klinkenborg is an author and creative writing instructor at Yale. In the preface to Several Short Sentences About Writing, he argues that “most of the received wisdom about how writing works is not only wrong but harmful,” and then devotes the rest of the book to smashing assumptions and correcting misconceptions about the craft.
“Many people assume there’s a correlation between sentence length and the sophistication or complexity of an idea or thought?–?even intelligence generally. There isn’t. You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences.”
6. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield, edited by Shawn Coyne
All writers struggle with writer’s block in one form or another, but Steven Pressfield named the enemy and outlined a strategy for conquering it in The War of Art, the perennially best-selling guide for writers and other creative professionals. In the first part of the book he introduces what he calls “Resistance”?–?the force within us that conspires to prevent us from fulfilling our creative pursuits?–?and then spends the next two sections sharing his solutions for overcoming it.
“Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.”
7. Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is and What You Can Do About It, by Steven Pressfield
Steven Pressfield recently returned to writing about writing with a brand-new book, Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t. It’s a no-nonsense guide to writing stories that people will want to read. While the bulk of the book addresses how to write fiction, Pressfield shows how the same principles of writing good stories can apply to writing nonfiction.
“When you understand that nobody wants to read your sh*t, you develop empathy. You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs?–?the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored?”
8. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity is the classic book by author and creativity coach Julia Cameron in which she introduces what she calls “morning pages.” Morning pages is a powerful stream of consciousness writing exercise that is not intended to yield publishable material, but which can help you get your pen moving and your thoughts flowing?–?even if you never intend to share them with the rest of the world. Morning pages is a powerful weapon in the battle against Pressfield’s “Resistance.”
“The morning pages will teach you to stop judging and just let yourself write. So what if you’re tired, crabby, distracted, stressed? Your artist is a child and it needs to be fed. Morning pages feed your artist child. So write your morning pages.”
Good writing evokes emotion. Good writing connects things. Good writing tells a story that the reader can relate to. Too often, writers only judge themselves against other writers. Those with better vocabularies and slicker prose seem, by all technical accounts, to be the best of the group. It’s enough to think that good writing, and becoming a good writer, requires formal education.
This is wrong.
Good writers don’t necessarily quote Shakespeare, nor do they use four- and five-syllable words. They don’t try to impress their readers with slick verses that rhyme and flow effortlessly from beginning to end. Good writers, like any good communicator, worry about one thing and one thing only: connecting their audience to the story.
Write to be understood
Good writers construct their writing in a way that’s understood by their target audience. Big words, little words, made up words and even text speak are all up for grabs. While smooth prose is certainly fun to read, it’s not always necessary to be understood.
Write in your own voice
My #1 rule is to write like Aaron Sorkin would have you talk (American President, The West Wing, Sports Night, Social Network and Studio 60). Sorkin’s style is short, sharp bursts that serve to move everything along, without the small talk that clouds understanding. Write like Sorkin would write a story based on your life.
Embrace flaws and weaknesses
The biggest difference between an okay writer and a good one usually isn’t talent, but rather an understanding of just what they can’t do. If you sound like a bumbling idiot when using big words, you probably want to put the thesaurus down the next time you write a post. If your vocabulary is limited, who cares? Just write as who you are.
Write like you stole something
Far too many blogs are safe. They talk about boring, everyday situations that in no way stand out.
Stop doing that.
Tell a story that may not have happened to someone else. Tell a story that you’ve been holding back for fear of embarrassment. Share a success that you’re not totally sure you’ve earned. Either way, stop judging writing as it’s being written. That’s what editing is for. If you need help getting started, here’s an informative post on how to start a blog.
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Now, arrange your desk, clear your mind and get to writing. Any tips that you’ve found that makes writing easier?
People often ask me what it takes to be a good writer. The short answer? I don’t know. The slightly longer answer? I don’t know, and I don’t care.
I am much less concerned with good writing than I am with effective writing. What’s the difference? One is based on opinion, and the other actually matters.
Everyone has their own idea of what it means to be a “good” writer. Opinions on quality vary, depending on who you ask, but effective writing is hard to argue with. It gets the job done — plain and simple.
So how do you write in a way that effectively communicates your message? Or are you merely trying to be good?
Since this often confuses people, here are seven tips for more effective writing, which you can apply today:
1. Practice your craft
You can’t do something well unless you do it badly first — and that begins with practice. I recommend setting aside time (even if it’s only 10 minutes) to write each day. You can’t get better if you don’t show up. Commit to the process and you will be amazed at the results.
I do this with my blog and other pieces I’m working on by writing daily a minimum of 500 words . The more I write, the more I learn about writing — and the more I realize I need to practice.
Set aside time to write each day. You can’t get better if you don’t show up.
Talking about writing isn’t writing. Planning to write isn’t how you get better. The only way to get better is to actually do it.
2. Challenge yourself
Write about topics that interest to you, but don’t forget to dabble in new stuff, as well. The more you stretch yourself, the more you grow. You could challenge yourself and join me for a free webinar to learn my three keys for effective writing. Or maybe take up a daily writing challenge.
The point is to never underestimate the importance of learning. I try to learn something new every day by reading books and blogs and listening to podcasts and audiobooks.
Learn something new every day.
I don’t like to go to bed until I’ve gleaned at least a few bits of wisdom and information from different sources.
3. Be yourself
Don’t model your writing after another writer. And if you do, do it only as a means of learning someone else’s technique, so that you can make it your own.
Ultimately, what you want is to discover your original writing voice. And frankly, that’s what your audience wants, too. If we wanted to read Hemingway, we would read Hemingway.
Discover your original writing voice.
I still struggle with this, but I’m getting better. One technique I use is to read aloud to myself what I’ve just written, and if it doesn’t sound like me, I rewrite it.
4. Don’t write like an idiot
Learn the basics of grammar. Buy an MLA, APA, or another style book (I recommend the AP Stylebook to a lot of copywriters and journalists). Chicago Manual is good for writing a book. Become a student of your craft and dedicate the rest of your life to honing it.
Become a student of your craft and dedicate the rest of your life to honing it.
As Hemingway once wrote, we are all apprentices in a craft nobody masters. The point is not to arrive but to attempt. To aspire to write the best that we know how in the only way we can. So let’s honor the craft and start writing like a pro.
Learning the rules, after all, makes it easier to break them later.
5. Start small
Most would-be writers begin in the wrong place. They begin by wanting to write a book. Don’t do that. That’s too big. Too audacious. Too easy to fail at.
Start small, maybe with a blog or a journal (you know, Doogie Howser style). Then write a few articles for some magazines, and after that, consider a book. As you take one step after another towards getting published, you’ll find that your confidence builds. So does your competence. You get better faster the more you practice in public.
Don’t your creative journey by trying to write a book. Start small.
That’s been my experience, anyway. After four years of writing for websites and magazines, I was finally ready to write a book. Without all that small work, I never would have been ready for something bigger.
6. Don’t give up
If writing is your dream, treat it seriously. Stick with it, even after the passion fades, which it likely will. Write every day. Perseverance pays off.
Write every day. Perseverance pays off.
Most days, I don’t even want to write, but I show up, anyway. And something mystical happens; the Muse meets me, and inspiration happens when I least expect it. I enjoy something I was dreading because I fulfilled my one commitment as a professional writer, which is to never quit.
After all, that’s the only difference between an amateur and a pro.
7. Learn to pitch your pieces
Many writers expect to write something phenomenal and get published immediately — you know, by osmosis and stuff. But before you write a piece, you should learn to pitch prospective publishers (book, magazine, or website).
Learn the art of asking. You will be doing it your whole career. Better get used to it now.
A good pitch is short, compelling, and promising. Without learning how to effectively market your writing, even the best writers can be overlooked. You are only one “yes” away from your next big break.
What are some other tips for effective writing that I missed? Share in the comments.
I am the best-selling author of five books, including the national bestsellers The Art of Work and Real Artists Don’t Starve. Each week, I send out a free newsletter with my best tips on writing, publishing, and helping your creative work succeed.
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As an aspiring writer, you want to get your point across without much difficulty, and that takes intentionality. Forget about being a “good” writer. That’s subjective. You want to be an effective writer and accomplish what you set out to do. Here are five tips for how to be an effective writer:
1. Read. A lot. My mom used to read the dictionary to me on long car rides, quizzing me on random words. While I don’t think that this is necessary, it helped me win the 6th Grade Spelling Bee. Words are your main tool in writing, and if you don’t build your vocabulary through reading, you greatly limit how you can express yourself.
2. Brush up on grammar. Get a decent grasp of general English grammar , but I warn you – once you understand the “rules” better, you realize how flexible many of them are. Nonetheless, you have to learn the principles behind them before you just start poetically bending all of them.
3. Pre-write. Brainstorm, write rough sketches, draft up lists, do that silly spider-thing you learned how to do in Grade School (where you connect all the ideas in the bubbles to main bubble, which looks like a spider’s body). Take some time to figure out what you really want to write about. Then develop a structure around it, with a general direction of where you want to go. Structure gives you something in which you can exercise your creativity without getting lost on a tangent.
4. Write. I try to do this every day, but sometimes don’t succeed. I make it a priority to post a blog every day, so that even if I don’t write something every day, I’m pretty much constantly revising and editing for my blog. This keeps me sharp, even when I’m not drafting brand-new stuff.
5. Re-write. Once you write something, you need to review it, and maybe have someone else whom you trust review it. Now, here’s the tricky part that I really struggle with. If something stinks, throw it away. You don’t, of course, lose the general theme of what you wrote (unless that stinks, too), but this helps you avoid the temptation to salvage a sentence or paragraph that you think has a good ring to it. Your rough draft won’t (and shouldn’t) cut it. Use it to help you write something new. That means actually re-writing the whole thing, giving the piece an entirely new flavor and style. This step may be the most important one in the writing process – throwing stuff out.
Also, check out the other following articles on writing:
Being a starving artist is a choice.
Bestselling author and creativity expert Jeff Goins dismantles the myth that being creative is a hindrance to success by revealing how an artistic temperament is, in fact, a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
For centuries, the myth of the starving artist has dominated our culture, seeping into the minds of creative people and stifling their pursuits. But the truth is that the world’s most successful artists did not starve. In fact, they capitalized on the power of their creative strength. In Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins debunks the myth of the starving artist by unveiling the ideas that created it and replacing them with fourteen rules for artists to thrive.
I’m Jeff Goins, the best-selling author of five books including The Art of Work and Real Artists Don’t Starve. Every week, I share new tips on creative work. Enter your email below and I’ll send you a free book.
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I’m Jeff Goins, the best-selling author of five books including The Art of Work and Real Artists Don’t Starve. Every week, I share new tips on creative work. Enter your email below and I’ll send you a free book.
Want to write better stories, essays, and blog posts? There’s one trick that you can do to easily become a better writer.
Photo by Neal Sanche. Modified by The Write Practice.
I’ve read a lot of writing by amateur writers both in my work as a professional editor and as the moderator of this blog, and I’ve found that there’s one, single piece of advice I give most often.
If you master this technique, you will quickly go from a mediocre writer to someone who writes stories that people read and say, “Wow! You wrote this?” So how do you become a better writer?
Five years ago, I spent nearly a year traveling the world, going to countries like Vietnam, Croatia, Uganda, Turkey, and Ireland. Beyond just being the trip of a lifetime, it gave me an amazing opportunity to write.
I wrote about the huge, redbrick cathedral we lived next to in Osijek, Croatia. I wrote about our strong, dark neighbors in the jungles of Thailand who helped us lift the thick beams to build a new house for our host. I wrote about reading Egyptian literature in a café in Dublin.
After reading my writing, my friend Dez began imitating the detail and specificity of my stories on her blog. Soon, she had friends and family emailing her, telling her what a great writer she was, how they felt like they were right there with her in Israel and Romania and Cambodia.
It’s easy to write this way, to pack more detail into each sentence, but when you’re more specific, it draws your reader in. It allows them to see what your characters see, to hear and smell what they’re hearing and smelling. In other words, it allows you to become a better storyteller.
Three Simple Ways to Be More Specific
What does this actually look like? How do you add specificity to your writing? Here are three ways to be more specific:
1. Focus On Detail
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common—and most overused—writing cliches out there. The reality is there are times when it makes sense to “tell.”
However, what I love about the quote above from Chekhov is that it shows the power of specific detail to open the imagination of your reader.
To summon detail in your writing, focus on your five senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. When you set the scene, challenge yourself to use each of your five senses.
Depending on your scene you might not be able to write using all of them, but by stretching your observation skills, you’ll give your reader a much richer experience. Without realizing why, your readers will think, “Wow. This person can really write!”
(For more on the writing rule, “Show, Don’t Tell,” check out our post The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell.)
2. Focus On Moments
“The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.” —Robert McKee
Great storytellers don’t try to tell every little detail of a character’s life. Instead, they select a few, precious moments and then go so deep into those moments that it’s as if we’re living those moments with the characters.
Of course, this is more difficult than it sounds because when you’re first writing a story, you may not know which moments will be important to a character’s life.
This is why the most important, and usually most difficult task of every writer isn’t the creation process but the editing process, when you choose those important moments and cut the rest away.
3. Write Dialogue
Dialogue is ultimate form of specificity because you’re writing exactly what the characters actually said. However, it always surprises me when I read writing by amateur writers and they describe what the characters are talking about instead of using dialogue. This is so lazy!
Write out the dialogue. Don’t describe the conversation.
By the way, remember to be specific in your dialogue, too. Cut out any unimportant small talk and only include dialogue that moves the story forward.
(Want to know one common mistake that will ruin your dialogue? Check out our post A Critical DON’T For Writing Dialogue.)
Above All, Don’t Be Vague
When your writing is vague, it creates no emotional response in the reader. In fact, vague writing wastes your readers time.
No matter what, don’t be vague!
Of course, it can be difficult to tell when your own writing is vague.
This is why it’s so important to have a good editor or critique group who can tell you when you need to be more specific. If you’re serious about being a better writer, then you need to learn to be more specific. It’s not difficult, but it does require you to open your senses to what your characters are experiencing.
Do you struggle with being specific in your writing?
Today, let’s practice writing as specifically as possible. Take a look around the room you’re in right now. Focus on one detail, like the shadow on a wall caused by a picture frame.
Then, start writing. As you write, remember to use as many of your five senses as you can. Describe the room for fifteen minutes.
When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to read a few practices from your fellow writers and comment on whether they were specific enough.
A 6-step process to improve anything you write.
Apr 28, 2017 · 5 min read
It doesn’t matter if you’re a great writer, good writer, or self-loathing writer.
You can become a better writer.
I’ve written all kinds of stuff over the years — from Medium posts to business proposals, screenplays to wedding vows, and even a newsletter For The Interested.
What I’ve learned from these varied writing experiences is that our writing often improves when we break the writing process down into several distinct steps.
Each step requires its own sk i ll set and separating them allows me to focus on what’s needed for each in that moment and has made my writing more simple, enjoyable, and effective.
Here’s an overview of the six steps I follow and how they can help you.
“The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” — Henry Miller
Writing begins way before you write.
The first step to better writing is to develop a habit of noticing things and to pay attention to the world around us on a daily basis.
We must learn to observe our surroundings, contemplate our interactions with people, and actively incorporate a wide array of influences into our lives (here’s a great place to start).
The places we go, people we meet, things we do, media we consume, and experiences we have are all assets in our writing arsenal. Make an effort to explore and contemplate as many things as possible.
Experience is the foundation of great writing and the more we acquire, the more we have to draw on.
“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” — Henry Ford
Idea generation and writing are not the same things.
Idea generation is the process of coming up with concepts while writing is the process of communicating those concepts. They’re related, but different.
That’s why it’s helpful to set aside some time specifically to generate ideas.
There are countless ways to do so — brainstorm, challenge ourselves to come up with 50 ideas, bounce ideas off other people, or whatever works for you to juice your creativity.
But the communication of these ideas (the writing) should be separated from the origination of them. Doing so frees us up to discover more and better ideas than we otherwise might.
And once we decide which ideas to pursue, we’re ready to move on to the next step.
“If you do enough planning before you start to work, there’s no way you can have writer’s block.” — R. L. Stine
Once we’ve chosen an idea or two we want to explore in our writing, the next step is to flesh out those ideas.
This is like a spin on the idea generation phase, but this time tailored to explore further the ideas we’ve chosen to focus on.
We can dig deep into them, think through what we want to say about them, and how we want to say it.
This can also be considered our outline phase — it’s the step where we lay out what we’re ultimately going to write and how we’re going to write it.
“Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period.” — Nicholas Sparks
Here we go — the moment we’ve been waiting for.
Writing — especially a first draft of something — is a completely different skill and mindset than idea generation and editing (more on that in a minute).
No matter how gifted we are as a writer, our first draft of anything is going to be flawed.
It won’t be our best and there’s a good chance we’re going to hate those first words we spit out on the page.
That’s ok. It’s understandable.
Because no matter how much we love to write, our initial act of writing is loaded with negative reinforcement.
We struggle to come up with the exact right words to express our ideas and inevitably get frustrated and discouraged when we discover our creation falls short of our intention.
While following the first three steps I outlined above prior to writing will make our first draft infinitely better, it won’t make it perfect and won’t protect us from negative feelings about our work.
But, here’s the good news — this is the only step in the writing process that will feel this bad.
Because once we get past the first draft, the rest of our work will improve what we’ve written. It will deliver positive reinforcement.
Keeping that in mind can help motivate us to push through this step, get something down on paper, and try not to judge our work too harshly.
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” — Stephen King
While the writing phase is often rooted in negative reinforcement, editing is the opposite — it’s filled with positive momentum.
Because every edit we make improves our work and gets us closer to the vision we have for our creation.
Editing is also a completely different skill than writing so it’s important to treat it as such. If we edit as we write, we’ll just slow ourselves down, confuse ourselves, and decrease the likelihood we’ll ever finish the draft.
Editing is its own separate step for a reason. And arguably, it’s the most crucial one to the ultimate success of our writing.
“Once you publish a book, it is out of your control. You cannot dictate how people read it.” — Margaret Atwood
The writing and editing may be done, but there’s still one more hurdle to conquer.
It’s time to publish. To share our writing with others.
It’s important to recognize this is a step all to its own and for many of us, it can be a difficult one — that’s why there are so many projects we’re forever “writing” and never publishing.
Publishing forces us to stare down our insecurities and summon the courage to put our creation out into the world. We have to do this despite knowing it may be judged, ignored, or celebrated.
It’s hard, but we have to remind ourselves why we wrote this thing in the first place and reassure ourselves that no matter what comes of it, we’ll be fine.
Publishing is a big deal and takes bravery. By recognizing it as such, we give ourselves credit for the accomplishment that it is — and give others the opportunity to benefit from that which we’ve created.
Speaking of which…it’s time for me to hit publish on this post.
Last week I asked you what you think the basics of writing well are. Today, we’re going to talk about the five biggest pitfalls that are hurting your writing.
Photo by Drew Coffman (Creative Commons)
You CAN Be a Good Writer
If you find writing difficult, you’re not alone. Most people struggle with writing, even many of the best writers. Writing uses different parts of the brain than speaking, and so even if your speaking skills rival President Obama’s, you might find writing very difficult. Unfortunately, so many people believe they’ll never be a good writer, so what’s the point in trying.
However, this attitude could actually be hurting your career. Employers say writing skills are one of the main areas they focus on for hiring, and a recent Time Magazine article said “60% of employers say applicants lack ‘communication and interpersonal skills.’”
I recently had several top managers at companies contact me for advice on how to train their employees to write better. One friend who works in the government complained to me about the horrible writing he has to deal with from top level officials, some of which he has to painstakingly edit before sending to Congress.
Writing skills are more important in today’s economy than ever. Isn’t it time you became a better writer? (share that on twitter?)
The good news is that learning to write doesn’t have to be hard if you avoid these five pitfalls. Let’s take a look at what’s holding back your writing.
1. You don’t have an opinion.
You may not be a very opinionated person, but to be a good writer, you need to do two things: have an opinion and back it up.
Say what you mean, and if you don’t know what you mean, write until you do know what you mean and edit the rest out afterward. The best writing is clear and simple. Bad writing, on the other hand, is vague and convoluted. The worst thing you can do is write an email or an article with five paragraphs that don’t really say anything.
Don’t be vague! It could be killing your writing.
2. You don’t edit your writing after your first draft.
A little editing covers a multitude of writing sins.
Writing well is less about learning big words and secret grammar nuances and more about developing simple habits.
Most of your writing issues could be fixed if you took the extra ten minutes to re-read your writing, preferably out loud, and then fix your mistakes. It’s simple. As you read what you’ve written, just ask yourself, “What sounds weird in this sentence?” When you find something, re-write it until it sounds right.
Editing isn’t just for articles and essays. You should also re-read and edit your emails and company memos, as well as your Facebook and Twitter posts. There’s no reason you should be disqualified for a job because the email containing your resume had an awkward sentence.
Editing may take extra time, but not doing it could be costing you money.
3. You think too much about your first draft.
Chances are you’re spending too much time writing a first draft and not enough time editing.
Because of the way our brains are wired, it’s more difficult to create while also trying to critique. It’s much easier to spend time writing a quick outline or “flash draft” of your main ideas, and then go back and edit them to make them sound good.
If you want to have more fun writing and really feel like a “pro,” writing quickly first, then going back to edit will really help.
4. You use overly technical language.
One mistake smart people often make is trying to make their writing more complicated, using lots of technical terms and formal language.
Surprisingly though, readers say complicated writing actually sounds less intelligent than writing that is clear and simple.
Of course, simple, clear writing takes a lot longer to write than vague, complicated writing, which is probably why most people don’t do it. If you want to stand out, simplify your writing as much as you can.
5. You don’t use correct grammar.
I know you’re not a grammar expert. Honestly, neither am I (I get grammar help from Liz constantly!). However, I’ve learned a few tricks that make my writing clearer, simpler, and more effective.
If you struggle with grammar, I highly recommend taking our tutorial, Grammar 101, and also checking out this article on comma splices, which is one of the biggest mistakes I see inexperienced writers making.
Want to Be a Better Writer? Practice Deliberately.
You practice writing every time you send a text message, write an email, or post an update on Facebook. However, no matter how much you practice writing like this, you probably won’t improve because you’re not practicing deliberately.
Deliberately practice requires two things:
- A goal
The Write Practice was created to help you practice writing deliberately. Every day we give you a new writing lesson, with a practice prompt designed to put what you just learned to use immediately. You practice for fifteen minutes, and then you can post your writing in the comments section of the article where our wonderful, supportive community of writers will give you feedback on what you just wrote.
This is the best collaborative writing workbook online, and if you want to be a better writer, I hope you’ll join us. To get started, check out the practice prompt below! Also, make sure you sign up for updates in the sidebar to get writing advice delivered straight to your email inbox.
What do you struggle with in writing? What do you think are the top writing mistakes people make?
What is the best film or book of all time. Defend your opinion using the lessons above.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you finish, post your practice in the comments section below. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for other writers.