I’ve been writing, and making a career of it, for well over a decade now. I’ve done all kinds of writing, from SEO copy to personal essays to novels. Over the years, I’ve collected a bunch of best-practice tips. Here they are.
1. Don’t Write for Other Writers
It’s natural to aim your pen at other writers, yet it’s almost always a mistake — one I’ve made a lot, along with every other writer I know.
We crave appreciation, and no one will ever love our way with words like another writer. But, unless writers are your target market, you shouldn’t be writing for them.
Writers aren’t necessarily buyers, yet many writers write to impress their peers. Don’t do that. Write for buyers instead. Use the language of your market, and talk to them, not at them. Always place clarity over cleverness, especially when writing online.
I learned that lesson early, but chose to ignore it for far too long. Buyers aren’t looking for clever wordplay or impressive verbal linguistics, and the last thing you want to do is confuse a buyer with ill-advised wit.
This doesn’t mean your copy should be a vacuum of personality. You should pour as much of your personality into your copy as you can, but be careful to never fall over the edge. Your focus should be on driving behavior, solving a specific problem, and letting your reader know why your solution is better than the competition’s. If this sounds like a fine line to balance on, it is.
You want a lifelong relationship with your customer. That won’t be built by being clever. Consider how you would help a casual acquaintance — someone you’re not too familiar with but are trying to help. You would focus on her problems, provide proof that you know what you’re talking about, and speak in the same language she would use among friends and colleagues.
Online, it’s easy to fall into the trap of hunting for digital kudos. It took me a full year to leap this hurdle and get clarity on what really matters to online buyers. This matters for you too, and the future of your business. You want people to look forward to everything you do, whether it’s building products or sitting down with a glass of wine and writing your next great book. This will be easier to do if you’re focused on driving action. There is little, if any, profit in getting readers to compliment your writing.
2. Write, Write, Write
It won’t always be easy, but if you’re a working writer you must write every day — no excuses.
You could be forgiven for taking Sunday off, though I still suggest slipping in 15 minutes or so for a brain drain. When it comes to writing, few things are more important than forming, and maintaining the habit. Skip a day, and you give yourself permission to abandon your rhythm. It becomes easy to lose the second, then the third, fourth, and fifth, until the habit is memory. Months might pass without you writing a thing. You’ve probably been there. I know I have.
Poor enough concrete on your habit to make your day feel incomplete without writing. This can be a lot of work, especially at first, but the sooner you form a consistent ritual, the sooner you’ll be able to fly through your writing without stopping to think.
Innate talent is great, but the big difference between writers who are crushing it, taking leisure away from the keyboard, and spending plenty of time with their family, are those writers who practice their habit daily, regardless of whatever else is on the schedule.
You won’t become a brilliant writer overnight, but you already have the root of brilliance inside you. Nurture it day-by-day and word-by-word. Stephen King is a great writer because he sits at his desk each day and doesn’t leave until he has at least 2,500 words down. That may sound drastic, especially if you’re just getting started, but start with 500 per day word count and add a little each month. You’ll be hitting four digits in no time.
3. Ignore the Rules
I ran a flower shop for a dozen years. Each day peeling petals, arranging layers, and sorting colors. Now, I do this with words.
I was just 18 when circumstance put me in the role of head designer at the flower shop. I had no experience, but was hungry to learn, with an innate belief in my abilities. Without training, I could only move my hands according to instinct. There was a “rule book” for flower arranging, but I ignored it in favor of intuition, believing that the formal way of doing things stripped arrangements of their potential beauty. Within two years, our shop was booked solid throughout the wedding season — a first in the store’s 20-year history.
Flower design is about color and texture, not all that different from designing with words. Each of us sees the world through a different lens, created by our personal moments. Just as we all see color slightly different, so we hear the hues of language. No one can write like you do — the way you string your syllables together is your art to share with the world.
I am thankful I never had a class in flower design. I would’ve spent countless hours studying the many things I shouldn’t ever do. Instead, I discovered that there are no limits, just as I have discovered with my writing.
You have what it takes to be a better writer. It’s inside you, waiting. This might mean discarding the rules the gatekeepers handed down and listening to the quiet whisper of your instincts. You don’t need rules when you whisper to your lover, so close your eyes and forget what you think you know.
You'll learn to carve your own rules in time. The only thing that matters is that it works for you.
4. Avoid Burnout
Burnout is a cancer to advancement — your brain’s way of telling you to slow down before it forces you to surrender. With so much to learn, abundant competition, and enough moving parts to make you feel muzzy, it’s easy to feel like the walking dead before you even get going.
Most writers feel burnout surfacing at one point or another, and I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. But I do think there are some things that have helped me and many of the writers I work with. They will probably help you, too.
- Don’t allow yourself to feel guilty. If you need to take some time away from writing because the realities of life are glaring, take it. Just don’t drop the habit altogether. If you need to hole yourself up in your cave, by all means do so, just make sure your family is supportive.
- Procrastination is normal. Of course you want to avoid procrastination, but don’t be naïve enough to believe you’ll never engage in it. Don’t flog yourself when it happens, just break through the wall as fast as you can.
- Put your goals first. If everyone else always comes first — clients, commenters, and your inbox — the fires of your passion may dim to embers. Don’t allow this to happen. By putting yourself first, at least occasionally, you will pull your dreams closer to you. When you can see your dreams at the edge of the horizon, it’s easier to keep running to them without feeling the crushing fatigue that surrounds dreams too distant to see.
- Have realistic expectations. Thinking you can climb Mount Everest in a few hours will leave you feeling defeated, even if you’ve already climbed thousands of feet. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small, and know that constant momentum is more significant than large, but sporadic, leaps forward.
- Get regular exercise. Too many writers ignore this and end up suffering. Your body needs rest and regular exercise, or you will get sick more often. Your productivity will suffer and so will your mood. Sitting at a desk all day is terrible for your body. Build in a few minutes for exercise each day. You don’t have to run a marathon; 15 minutes each day can help you stay strong.
If you’re running on fumes you won’t run fast, and it’s easier to fall. Approach your writing with the energy it deserves, and always remember to take care of yourself.
5. Look for Intersections
Creativity is born whenever you open your mind — when you’re at a red light and your mind wanders to an old conversation or song, or when you’re trying to drift to sleep but your mind keeps circling the characters, setting and structure in a book you’ve yet to write.
Maybe you’re like me, having spent far too much of your life believing you weren’t creative. If so, I hope you now realize now that you’re every bit as creative as everyone you know.
Creativity isn’t magic. It’s habit.
Creativity is knowing you see the world through a unique perspective, and that you can make connections no one else has ever made. Creativity is the alchemy of making something from nothing — when two ideas collide.
It happens when you’re watching a film, listening to a song, or reading a book. The whisper is there; don’t ignore it. Most of the time, it’s trying to tell you something important. Capture the dispatch, then get it to the page.
Sure, the same stories have been told over and over and over again, and you’ll probably never come up with something 100% unique. Neither will I. Art is born when life’s intersecting roads lead you toward an old story you can tell in a new way.
Read, write, love, and live. Record what you learn and waste nothing. Do it repeatedly until it is easy. Soon you will be a master.
Come back for part 2 next week.