For non writers, it’s a common belief that being a good writer is a genetically determined trait. We see it in the same vein as being a natural singer. You’re either born with the vocal ability to belt out a falsetto lullaby pitch perfectly, or your voice should be reserved for your rubber ducky in the shower.
I want to argue why that isn’t the case and how to become a better writer—it’s within anyone’s grasp. To become a better writer requires building a system to incorporate deliberate practice, commitment, and focus.
Why do you think your writing needs improving?
When we’re on the journey to become a better writer, we’re often seeking feedback from writing apps like Grammarly and Hemingway. They are useful, and I rely on them, but it’s hard to improve your writing with an app alone. I have two reasons for this:
- Grammarly and Hemingway put red flags all over your precious draft causing you to be demotivated to click “publish”. Clicking publish is hard enough as we’re already anxious about putting our work out only for the vultures of the internet to pick it apart.
- Grammarly and Hemingway can’t tell you what good writing is. An issue with apps is they tell you what you can improve, not why you’re consistently making that error.
Another reason why you may think you don’t have the chops to become a good writer is from not knowing the correct labels for word usage.
Don’t go as far as believing that knowing the definition of “durative verb” moves you to master writer. If you had the urge to Google that, don’t worry as these concepts are often learned through osmosis in having English as your first language. Learning these concepts often come in handy for English as a second language learners.
All of this can leave you in a bit of a pinch, right? If apps don’t make me a better writer and neither do concepts, what does make me a better writer? Strategies and learning framework.
Applying strategies and learning frameworks: How to become a better writer
Good writing is subjective. The trick to becoming a better writer is to learn strategies of what makes good writing, and not rely on tools.
1. Make writing a habit
Seth Godin is a prolific writer. Seth has written 18 books and his blog has amassed more than 6000 posts. What does it take to become a writer of this magnitude? In an episode of the Growth Show with Seth Godin, he shares:
If you make the decision once to be a vegan, then you don’t have to have a discussion with yourself every night about whether to have a hamburger or not. If I make a decision to blog every single day, then the only discussion I need to have is, ‘What’s the best blog I can do?’ not, ‘Should I do a blog?’
As Lorne Michaels said, Saturday Night Live doesn’t go on because it’s ready, it goes because it’s 11:30.
Seth clearly has writing as a habit.
Habits are powerful. They help carry you towards your goals without having to consciously think or decide to write.
Most of us have a morning or nighttime routine—whether we’re aware of them or not. At night, the last thing you might do is brush your teeth before getting into bed. You don’t make the conscious decision to brush your teeth every night, it just happens on autopilot. You can do this with writing and put writing on autopilot, or should I say, make it a habit.
How to do you turn writing into a habit?
The University College of London studied 96 people over a 12 week period to see how long it takes something to become a habit. Each participant was asked to choose one new habit to implement. The habit participants chose had ranged from simple to complex, but it was a habit they’d like to have in their daily lives.
On average, it takes 66 days before a new behavior becomes automatic.
We’re all time strapped individuals. Even if you decide to write everyday, that doesn’t immediately open up a window of time for writing every day.
So how do you make time to write every day? Create a system.
2. Create a system for writing
Creating a system ties into writing becoming a habit. They’re perfect complementary frameworks to become a better writer!
A system is a writing schedule you follow each week. For me this was committing to writing every day.
This is a framework I borrowed from Jerry Seinfeld, where you use a calendar to track your writing progress. Every day that you write, you mark a big X or place a sticker on the date. As you stick to your writing schedule, you won’t want to break it; that helps writing become an incentive.
As you begin to rack up a good writing streak, try rewarding yourself. Rewarding yourself is equally as important as sticking to your schedule. Creating a rewards system has many psychological benefits and helps sustain enjoyment of the task.
3. Practice daily at your optimum time
In a bid not to sound like your old high school coach, the value of daily practicing can’t be underestimated.
K. Anders Ericsson has famously shown the value of daily deliberate practice. Ericsson found the difference between amateur and masters, whether that’s musicians, chess players, runners, dancers, or artists, was the role of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is where you constantly thrive and look for feedback while pushing yourself to the edge of your current limits. This happens daily which is why it’s vital to carve out time to schedule and practice your craft.
This is the commitment some of the greatest writers in history have made. You need to adopt this practice too. The most common theme among them was: wake up early, and start writing. There was a few nights owls in there as well.
How do you know when the best time to write is?
Knowing your biological prime time is essential to optimizing for your daily practice and writing schedule. Biological prime time is a phrase coined by Sam Carpenter in his book work the system.
To find your biological prime time, for each hour of your waking day you keep a record of your energy, motivation, and focus. In this blog post by Chris Bailey, a productivity expert, he collected data on his biological prime time for 21 days:
Based on Ericsson’s research, I recommend aiming for 1 to 2 hours of deliberate writing practice each day. Combining that framework and Chris’s data, a good time for him to schedule in his daily practice would be 10am to 12pm. As a backup he could also use 5pm – 7pm.
4. Make writing a commitment and focus
How often do you keep to your commitments or projects? Are you notorious for starting something and moving onto the next before the original project is finished? The same can be said for new things we want to learn and master.
Above I’ve outlined why practice, habits, and systems play a vital role but focus is equally as important. Focus applies to both short term and long term.
Commit with a short term, distraction free focus
In this modern day, distractions come from everywhere. Whether that’s smartphones, Slack channels, social media sites, or your inbox, avoiding temptations can be really tough. Consider the fact that the mere presence of a smartphone can reduce your cognitive capacity—and that’s not even using it, that’s when it’s sitting in the same room!
It’s vital the time you carve out to practice your writing is a distraction free zone. Task switching (or multitasking) has a negative impact on the quality and quantity of work you produce. In fact, research shows that multitaskers:
- Experience a 40% drop in productivity
- Take 50% longer to accomplish a single task
- Make up to 50% more errors
Also going back to your original task becomes difficult, taking around 23 minutes to get back into the task after you were interrupted.
As marketers looking to improve our writing we need to practice a little self-discipline here. We need to commit to a two hour distraction free practice session and make it a 12 week commitment.
Commit with a long-term focus
Long-term focus is much more important than you believe. I’ve learned this from the overarching principles outlined in the 12 Week Year, by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington.
The idea of practicing writing for an entire year is overwhelming. Sometimes it’s not sustainable in a content marketing role, especially if you’re the only content marketer. This is why I suggest commiting to becoming a better writer for 12 weeks. The book states that “in 12 weeks, there just isn’t enough time to get complacent, and urgency increases and intensifies”.
For me I decided to write for 3 months (January to the end of March) and I committed to publishing a short piece of (200+ words) on my blog or Medium every day.
I chose daily publishing because the feeling of putting my thoughts out there felt better than working behind the scenes on say a novel, ebook, or ultimate guide. It doesn’t matter the project you’re working on, just make sure you’re writing!
5. Resources: Don’t forget to study
There’s a lot of books on marketing, writing, and content marketing. Not many books have perfected that middle ground of writing for content marketing. But between them you can learn about writing content for the purpose of marketing.
Great writing is a timeless skill and there’s a few books that I highly recommend for improving your prose.
Pick up a few books on techniques:
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser
- Make Every Word Count – Gary Provost
- How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One – Stanley Fish
- The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human – Jonathan Gottschall
- The War of Art – Steven Pressfield (this one is a wildcard in the list, you won’t learn writing techniques, but you’ll learn how to push through creative blocks.)
Books with principles on great copy and content for marketing:
- Ogilvy on Advertising
- Ca$hvertising – Drew Eric Whitman
- Scientific Advertising – Claude Hopkins
- The Robert Collier Letter Book – Robert Collier
- Everybody Writes – Ann Handley. Ann’s book breaks down the concepts of writing techniques for various web pages. I think Ann’s formula is vital to creating great content: utility x inspiration x empathy = great content. Put it on a post-it note and stick it to your monitor.
Online resources and guides:
- Content writing secrets of professional writers – Neil Patel
- How to edit your own writing – Jimmy Daly
- Write again. Write better – Tom Albrighton
- This is the problem – Drew Neil
- How to write articles and essays quickly and expertly – Stephen Downes
- How to write an awesome blog post – Diana Smith [SlideShare]
- Story structure – the hidden framework that hangs your story together – Gavin McMahon
Read non-fiction and learn the elements of a great story
Components of great storytelling exist primarily in fiction, but they can exist in nonfiction as well. Storytelling is an essential component to make nonfiction writing compelling.
I’ve found the principles of storytelling to be applicable to Kayako’s content archetype, Life at Kayako where we showcase internal stories. You need to inject life into a story to make it worth reading. You do this by creating a story arc.
A story arc captures how your story develops throughout the content. To keep it interesting, you need to deliver the story in a surprising way — not just linear A to Z. For a writer in nonfiction, the most interesting discovery you can make is capturing a transformation someone made in how they view, delivered, and experienced something. Think of this as a story bell curve.
For content there’s two principles you want to double down on, the mini plot or the archplot. I’ll let the very talented writer and book editor Shawn Coyne explain why the story bell curve is important:
Knowing the relationship between the CONTENT genres and the STRUCTURE genres will save you from much pain later on. If you know up front that the potential audience for your story is small, you won’t freak out when you don’t hit the bestseller list. Instead, you’ll be pleased to find a small tribe of people who fall head over heals with your story. A select group who understand what you have set out to do and of how you were able to pull it off.
How do you know if you’re nonfiction writing is telling a great story?
Work with or hire a mentor
What kind of nonfiction writing has great storytelling built in? Good old fashioned journalism.
As tying in storytelling to content writing was my weakest point, I decided to work with writing mentor Marian Edmunds. Marian is an ex Financial Times writer with many years of experience in the field.
Every two weeks we’d hop on a call and go over my writing or a piece I was editing for the Kayako blog.
Before working with Marian, I found it difficult to get detailed feedback on my writing. I wanted in-depth sessions where we could tear down my writing and really know what and where I could improve. This is where I found Marian most helpful. To get that kind of attention on your work, sometimes you need to pay for it.
6. Tips and tools to make your writing and editing easier
Although this isn’t the focus of this blog post, there are ways to immediately upgrade the quality of your writing. Here’s a few quick wins:
- Too. Ending a sentence with “me too” is simple but ending a sentence with “We got lucky with Step 2 and 3, too” becomes a little trickier for a reader to comprehend. By default, end as sentence on “as well”.
- “Yet” and “but”. When there are other angles or different perspectives using but or yet makes sense. But your writing can end up being riddled with a string of “buts”. You might feel the need to mix it up. As a rule try to start sentences with “yet”, and using “but” mid-sentence.
- Also. A personal opinion of mine is also can appear as a low self-esteem word in writing. Most writers use it as a way to say don’t forget this is important! Instead, rewrite the sentence and show the reader it is important e.g. “Naturally, we were also very much on the same page”
- And. No one really cares if you start a sentence with and. If you’re using it, make sure you’re adding value to the previous sentence. If it feels like it’s tacked on, get rid of the sentence.
Tools do have their place in helping you become a better writer. When I was going through the motions to improve my prose, here’s what I relied on:
- Grammarly – Saves you from embarrassing errors. Your welcome ;-).
- Evernote – Perfect for curation of articles for inspiration research and fleshing out ideas.
- Hemingway Editor – Tells you when you’re being too wordy, or writing in a passive voice.
- TitleCap – Automatically capitalize titles according to AP Style
- RescueTime – Get weekly updates and see how much time you’re spending in your word processor.
- Scrivener – See your work at a glance. Essential software for writing an in depth guide, ebook, or book. Works offline (unlike Google Docs), backup your files though!
When will you become a better writer?
Above are the foundations that can make anyone a great writer. Isn’t it comforting to know that picking the right time for daily practice, commitment, and focus are the only things stopping you from becoming a great writer? You can put all those worries to bed. Skills are not genetically determined, they’re learned.
What are you waiting for? Pick up a pen or open up your word processor and start writing!
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