Snapshot :- With our website word count now over half a million words, it’s a good time to share 5 habits we’ve used to enhance our writing expertise. Learn how to boost your writing skills by reading about writing; eliminating basic mistakes; focussing on the needs of the reader; valuing first drafts; and cutting out unneeded words and phrases.
When you decide to work on your writing expertise, it feels like you’re taking on a major commitment. It feels like there’s so much to learn, and where do you start?
The difference between getting by with everyday writing skills, and excelling the very best writers is like the difference between home cooks, and three hatted / starred chefs. You only build expertise when you focus on learning the skills, practising the skills and making it a habit.
Look at how great writers became great writers, and they all talk about putting the effort in. Nobody becomes a great writer overnight. You need to be dedicated and practice.
Finding good writing habits helps a lot.
These help you focus on regularly learning new techniques and stretching your writing skills.
We already covered the need for making writing a habit in a previous article.
This week we want to share examples of some of our own writing habits we use to boost our writing expertise.
Like any skill, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Practice makes perfect, after all. But, practice also means making mistakes. That’s OK too, because learning from mistakes, means you make less mistakes. The fewer mistakes, the better the quality of your writing. It’s be clearer. More interesting. More professional.
That’s what boosting your writing expertise can do for you.
Some days your writing’s on fire, and others …
Of course, some days it feels like your writing’s on fire. You’re bursting with great ideas and creativity. The words flow smoothly, everything works and it feels like you can do no wrong.
But, let’s face it, that’s not the reality of day to day writing for most people. Many days, it’s a grind. It can feel like you’re wading through mud. Or you get too easily distracted. The neighbour’s dog barking. The guy with the leaf blower. Twitter.
That’s because as wonderful as writing can be, it’s hard work. It takes effort, and dedication, and it can be hard to get started. That’s why habits and routines matter so much to build your writing expertise. You need to find ways to make yourself practice good writing skills automatically.
Set writing targets to build habits
Take setting regular writing targets to keep your momentum going, for example. We recently came across the Seinfeld writing habit, used by comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
This was a “life hack” he shared when asked how he managed to write so many jokes.
He got a big calendar. Every day he wrote jokes, he put a big X on the calendar to mark it off. Soon, he had a chain of Xs.
And because he didn’t want to break the chain, he kept up the habit of writing every day.
A 2009 study showed it takes between 18 and 254 days to build new habits. The average time for a new habit to become automatic is 66 days. You have to give habits time to develop, until they become automatic.
So whether it’s Seinfeld Xs on a calendar, or green boxes on a spreadsheet (the digital equivalent in the three-brains office), set visible targets and stick to them. It’s a great habit to boost your writing expertise.
We’ve done weekly articles for over 18 months using this method. Check the dates if you like, no gaps so far. The motivational benefit of setting yourself a routine and tracking progress helps you develop a serious writing habit.
A serious writing habit builds writing expertise
Our serious writing habit has meant 90+ blog articles, and half a million words plus of content since our very first blog post. That’s still not quite War and Peace levels (587,287 words in War and Peace, if you’re interested), though the day we pass the word count of that book, we’ll be having a few shots of vodka to mark the occasion.
The benefit of this writing habit is we continue to enhance our writing expertise.
That means we get clearer, more interesting and more professional at sharing information and entertaining our customers and readers along the way.
But, if we pause for a moment, and reflect on what we’ve learned, it’s obviously not just how many words you write, but how well you use them.
After all, a monkey hitting keys at random on a keyboard will eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare (known as the infinite monkey theorem).
(Though the same theorem could apply to some advertising agencies and the adverts they produce. Eventually, they have to do a good one)
So,in no particular order, here’s the five habits we’ve found most useful to improve our writing expertise since we started.
Habit 1 – Read about writing
We recently wrote about an article about the 4Ps of marketing, which talked about how newer marketers like to dismiss classic tools and techniques as old, and therefore no longer relevant.
This, thankfully, doesn’t seem to happen in the world of writing. Sure, language and tonality evolves as peoples and cultures evolve. New forms of writing like blogging and text messaging appear.
But, the key principles of how to write well are well-recognised and relatively unchallenged.
Good writing is good writing. It’s clear, concise and correct.
The Elements of Style
For example, we recently read the Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Many great writers refer to it. The original edition dates back to 1920, though an updated edition came out in 1999.
This century old book, that hasn’t been updated in 20 years, is an excellent book to read about the skill of writing. It’s packed with useful advice to build your writing expertise.
Seven rules of usage, eleven principles of composition and informative guides to form, and regularly misused words.
We love the start. It tells you to omit unnecessary words, with eagerness and relish. Vigorous writing is concise.
This is an ongoing writing mission for us. Like most people, we always write long to start with. Finding neater, tighter, more concise ways to write using less words makes your writing better.
(we’ve more examples in our article on writing lessons from 2020)
Your first draft (more on that later) will always have too many words. Unneeded adjectives and adverbs. Long-winded and clunky sentence constructions. Part of the pleasure of writing is spotting these in the edit.
Cutting them out is like squeeing a spot or a blister, there’s something strangely satisfying about taking out rogue, unneeded words.
Nobody reading your stuff wants more words. Brevity matters if you want to level up your writing expertise. The fewer the words, the better the writing.
Here’s some examples from the book of how NOT to be concise versus how to be concise.
This is a subject that -) this subject
The question as to whether -) whether
He is a man who -) he
This is a subject that -) this subject
The reason why is that -) because
Read great books about writing
We mention Stunk and White only because it’s the one we read most recently. But, there’s plenty of other great books about writing. As we mention in our skill guide on being a better writer, these are some of our favourite reads about writing.
50 Key Writing Tools* by Roy Peter Clarke
On Writing Well* by William Zinser
On Writing, by Stephen King
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit* by Lawrence Bock
Get into the habit of reading about writing. Take notes and refer back to these sorts of books. Follow the advice they give, and good writing habits start to become second nature.
Schedule a regular reminder to go back and look at your notes. Even if it’s just looking at the headlines again, refreshing your memory of what writing experts say will boost your writing expertise.
Habit 2 – Eliminate basic errors
Reading books about writing reminds you that writing is both a skill you need to practice. The most skilled writers use words in a way that shows you they know what they’re doing. They build confidence that they’ve written is worth the time to read. Great writers take you places that leave you better informed or entertained, or both.
What they don’t do, is make the basic errors. Basic error show you the writes doesn’t know what they’re doing. You lose convince in what they say. You end up neither informed of entertained.
So, spend time getting basic errors out of your system. Not spell-checking for example is a basic error. In our experience editing blogs, spelling mistakes and grammar errors are easy to miss. All of our articles will have been checked at least three times. We can never be 100% certain we’ve got them all, but we put in the time to regularly hunt them down.
Basic errors that happen to us all the time
We have a couple of regularly occurring basic error spelling mistakes that drive us nuts.
For example, as our site focusses on marketing, we regularly refer to qualitative and quantitative research. These have different meanings. But they’re written very similarly, with only a few letters difference. Every time, we have to stop and ask is about quality of insight – qualitative or quantity of insight – quantitative?
That gets tedious.
Also, we talk a lot about brand identity. But, with our website font, “identity” and “identify” look really similar. There’s just that one little curl’s difference from “t” to an “f”. And the spell-check never picks it up. Hard to spot in a 4,000+ word article.
Then, there’s “who” and “how”. So easy to mis-type when you’re in a rush. And again, not easy to spot because spell-check doesn’t know which one you mean.
Basic mistakes of amateur writers
Beyond basic spelling mistakes, there’s plenty of other ways to make your writing look amateurish.
Too much passive voice, for example.
Our first articles were crammed with it. Sorry, we crammed our first articles with it. It’s something you pick up from academia and the business world. Writing reports that force you to be speculative, and not have a definite opinion unless you have tons of evidence.
Great in the passive voice. But terrible to read.
Opinions (as long as it clear it is opinion) and actions are much more interesting to read. Both work better in the active voice.
Make concrete statements every opportunity you get. Avoid cop-out phrasing, and get rid of it when you see it.
We know we’re guilty of talking about “might be” this and “maybe that”. Those are not concrete, they are copy-out phrases. We haven’t completely purged ourselves of this bad writing habit, but it’s a lot less common than when we started. Our newer articles are a better read than our older ones because of it.
(although, we do go back and re-edit old articles too).
How to eliminate the basic mistakes
Your mistakes won’t all disappear in one day. It’s a gradual process of elimination, and a gradual habit of writing well. But, pick a couple at a time to prioritise. Get into the habit of getting these right, and then move on to your next most common mistakes.
The spelling mistake thing, for example.
We draft all our blogs in Word first. Old-fashioned maybe, but we prefer the layout and flexibility. And yes, it does spell checking compared to our default WordPress set-up.
We know this creates more work transferring and publishing the text on to WordPress later. But, moving the text across and seeing it in a different context often helps you spot mistakes you didn’t see in the original draft.
We know there’s spelling plug-ins we could use or online apps like Grammarly, but so far, we’re happy with our current system.
Build in time in your writing and editing process
You should set up your writing and editing process in advance to allow time to look for and fix basic mistakes. Often, you don’t spot them in a first draft. But, if you re-look at a piece of writing a week later, or a month later, it’ll stick out lick a sore thumb.
So, with our blog content for example, we set a regular review schedule to go back and look for basic errors. First drafts are usually written a week or more in advance. There’s always a time gap before we update to the second draft. And it’s always reviewed again as we publish it, and yet again a few weeks after it’s published.
We can’t guarantee we eliminate all basic errors in our articles. But if there are any, it’s not for lack of effort to find them.
The more you do do these checking processes, the more second nature it becomes.
It doesn’t necessarily make your writing great. But, it removes a lot of reasons your writing might be bad. And having writing that’s “not bad” is a good step on the way to writing that’s good.
Habit 3 – Focus on the needs of the reader
While most of us learn to write as a basic life skill in childhood, writing well goes beyond what school teaches us. Writing well is a much more advanced life skill that surprisingly few people make the effort to learn.
Because most of what we write, we do for our own benefit. We think about what we want to tell people.
Most of us can post what we did on Facebook. Or, write a basic chatty email. At a push, we’ll write a report at work.
If we have to.
But great writing does more than that. It thinks about the benefit for the reader. That’s not something everyday does naturally.
As we cover in our guide to how to be a better writer, writing experts write with the reader in mind. There’s a selflessness about great writing.
When you realise that writing is not just about technical skills, like spelling, grammar and composition, it gives a big boost to your writing expertise.
Great writing also demands other life skills like empathy, and understanding context. It’s about understanding the goal of the writing, who’s going to be reading it, and what you want them to think and feel about it.
At a basic level, most writing meets logical (information) or emotional (entertaining or engagement) needs. Knowing how to adapt your style to meet these different needs is a skill and takes practice.
In particular, adding emotion and feeling to your writing. It’s easy to write out an informative list. But, anyone can do that. You need something else to make it stand out. Great writing makes an emotional connection. Your personality and style needs to come out through your writing.
Otherwise, it gets boring fast.
Add visualisation and humour
Our default choice to avoid boring readers is to include stories, examples and case studies where possible. These help readers visualise what we’re writing about. Visualisation helps make writing more impactful and memorable for the reader. It’s easier to remember mental images than it is to remember specific words.
When we can’t do that, our other usual choice is humour. If you see the funny side of a topic, it’s a great way to add feeling to your writing. When your reader laughs, it’s an emotional connection.
Doesn’t have to be gags, jokes and punchlines. But if you don’t take the topic too seriously, and poke fun at it, and yourself, that usually makes for better writing.
To boost your own writing expertise, try to identify what types of emotional connections you can make with your writing. Are you particularly empathetic for example, or do you tell great stories? Are you funny?
Try to work out what they emotional “hook” of your writing style is. Work out what fits your brand identity and personality.
Habit 4 – The value of first drafts
When we started writing, it was hard to put words on the page.
Like riding a bike for the first time, it felt awkward and unnatural. We were apprehensive. There’s no stabilisers when you write. You just have to go for it.
It’s important to push your way through that mental barrier. Just start writing. Something. Anything.
Once the words start to come out, everything is instantly better. Because even if they’re the wrong words, and you end up never using them, some words are always better than no words.
No words on the page is the worst.
We now have the good writing habit of just starting without worrying too much about getting it right first time. Just writing what comes to mind about the topic for the first draft.
No-one expects a first draft to be good
It’s a first draft and no-one expects those to be good. The first draft always gets re-read, and re-written. Always.
None of your actual readers will ever see it, so don’t even worry about it. Got an outrageous or provocative thought? Fuck it, get it down on the page. Let the words flow out around your topic. If you’ve planned the topic and already got a structure to follow, great. But if not, just get some words out, anyway.
Then walk away. Let the words sit and stew like good cup of tea for a while. Because when you go back, you’ll have fresh eyes. You’ll have material to work with. And re-writing to make words better is far easier than writing a first draft.
It’s more fun, for a start.
Score out that crappy first idea and replace it with a better one. Move that strong line up nearer the start. Cut and paste sections until the flow better.
This re-writing and editing habit takes your writing expertise to another level. As we cover in our blog editing article, this part is as important as getting the words out in the first place.
Consider your first draft like that first bike ride.
It’ll look ugly and you might fall over. But next time, it’ll be easier. And the time after that, you’ll be thinking about it less, and enjoying it more.
Habit 5 – Cut out unneeded words and phrases
Talking of more. Or less. Less is more is definitely our biggest learning when it comes to enhancing your writing expertise.
When you go through that editing phase, you start to spot “creep” words and phrases.
So, do you really need that “so” at the start of the sentence? It crept in a lot in our early writing efforts.
We try to use it sparingly now. Or, ironically, of course.
Then, there’s the word “then”. Do you really need it every time you use it? Especially in lists.
It’s usually obvious if you’re describing a list of actions, that one follows the other. You rarely need to use “then”, unless it’s an “if … then …” expression. Or something sudden and unexpected happens.
For us, in non-fiction blog writing, sudden and unexpected is rare.
And finally, there’s “that”. When you write, “that” appears a lot, like an uninvited guest at your birthday party. It appears a lot in our first drafts, and we try to cut them out in the edit.
So, not “the thing that makes the difference” as we had in our first draft, but “what makes the difference”. See, how that’s a much cleaner, tighter way to say it.
To be clear, what makes the most difference is not adding words, but removing them, without losing meaning.
This concentrates the power of the words. We trim most of our articles by 5-10% from the first draft, with no real difference to the meaning.
This concentration of word power makes the article flow better. It’s easier for the reader to follow. Fewer words, more meaning is part of the skill of writing.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be clever or play with the words. It just means making choices. Be decisive about what you include. And, enjoy the skill of taking unnecessary words out.
Being clear is more important than being clever.
Clear AND clever writing
Though if you can be clear AND clever, so much the better. And on that note, we wanted to share a few Tom Swifty’s to close out this article.
Tom Swifty’s are where you wedge in adjectives or adverbs that have a double meaning in the context of a piece of dialogue.
“Pass me the shellfish,” said Tom crabbily.
“I’ll have another martini,” said Tom dryly.
And our particular favourite,
“I’m throwing this soup on the ground!” said Tom with wanton disregard.
Great writing. Clear AND clever.
Which brings us to the end of this article on writing expertise, as Tom might finally say.
Conclusion – habits to improve your writing expertise
If you write yourself, or you work with writers, you’ll build up your own writing habits.
From all the tips and tricks we’ve read on writing, there are five habits we find ourselves using the most often. If you can apply these habits, they will raise your writing expertise.
Read about writing; eliminate basic mistakes; focus on the needs of the reader; value first drafts; and cut out unneeded words and phrases.
We’ve updated a lot of our earliest articles to take out most of the writing “junk” we’ve covered in this article, but there’s always room for improvement. For us it’s an ongoing part of what we do to keep improving our writing expertise.
We hope you can build some of those habits too.
* As Amazon Affiliates, we earn from every qualifying purchase