Why read this? : We share 5 of our favourite habits which help enhance your writing expertise. Learn how easy, everyday actions can raise the quality of what you write. Read this to learn the good habits which take your writing to another level.
Good writing habits are part of building writing expertise. Like any skill, you have to practise it regularly to get better at it.
Habits help you try out new techniques and gets you into a regular rhythm of improving your writing skills.
Just writing regularly is a good place to start. But there are more specific habits you can develop. This week, we share our 5 favourite writing habits to enhance your writing expertise.
Writing has good and bad days
Some days, the words just pour out. You’re bursting with great ideas and creativity. Everything just works. You can do no wrong. But, let’s face it, these are the exception rather than the rule for most writers.
Most of the time, writing is hard work. Like wading through mud. You get easily distracted. The neighbour’s dog barking. The guy with the leaf blower. Twitter.
It’s hard work to find motivation on those sorts of days. But good writing habits make it easier to make the effort on your bad writing days.
Set writing targets to build habits
Take setting regular writing targets, for example. We recently came across the Jerry Seinfeld writing habit.
This was a “life hack” he shared when asked how he managed to write so many jokes.
He got a calendar. Every day he wrote jokes, he marked the day off with an X.
Soon, he had a chain of Xs. Because he didn’t want to break the chain, he got into 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 build your writing expertise.
Our habit is posting an article once a week. We’ve had that habit for 18 months now. The motivational benefit of tracking progress so we don’t break the chain has helped keep us going.
A regular writing habit builds writing expertise
We can see how our writing expertise has grown the more we’ve written. Clearer. More interesting. More professional. Better at informing and entertaining our readers as we go.
But, hold on a second.
One important thing we’ve also learned is it’s not just how many words you write, but how well you use them. Quality counts over quantity.
After all, a monkey hitting a keyboard at random will supposedly eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare (the infinite monkey theorem).
So, with that in mind, here are 5 writing habits which have helped improve our writing expertise.
Habit 1 - Read about writing
Our recent 4Ps of marketing article talked about how newer marketers like to dismiss classic tools and techniques as no longer relevant.
Thankfully, this doesn’t happen among writers.
Sure, language evolves as people and cultures evolve. New forms of writing like blogging and text messages appear.
But, the key principles of how to write well are well-accepted and relatively constant. 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 writing teachers refer to it. It dates back to 1920 and was last updated in 1999.
This book is an excellent read about the skill of writing. It’s packed with useful advice to build your writing expertise.
7 rules of usage and 11 principles of composition. Instructive guides to how to set the form of writing, and how to avoid regularly misused words.
We love the start of this book. It tells you to…
“… omit unnecessary words, with eagerness and relish. Vigorous writing is concise.”
Great line. Who doesn’t want their writing to be vigorous?
But easier said than done. Like most writers, our first drafts run long. They’re rarely vigorous.
Re-writing first drafts to take out unnecessary words, with eagerness and relish makes our writing more vigorous by the time readers see it. (See more examples in our writing lessons from 2020 article).
First drafts are almost always too long. Full of unneeded adjectives and adverbs. Long-winded and clunky sentence constructions. Part of the pleasure of writing is spotting these in the edit. Deleting them is like squeezing a blister. There’s something strangely satisfying about removing rogue words.
Readers rarely want more words. They want better words. Brevity helps you level up your writing expertise. The more concise you write, the more readable your writing.
Strunk and White give some great examples of how to say common writing phrases more concisely :-
- This is a subject that -) this subject.
- The question as to whether -) whether.
- He is a man who -) he.
- The reason why is that -) because.
Read more books about writing
Stunk and White’s the one we read most recently. But, there are many other great books about writing. As per our being a better writer guide, some of the best ones are :-
Reading about writing is a great habit. Take notes as you read. Refer back to them often. Follow their expert advice, and you’ll soon start building more writing expertise.
Habit 2 - Eliminate basic errors
The most skilled writers build your confidence that what they’ve written is worth the effort. Great writers take you on a journey which leaves you more informed and entertained.
What they don’t do, is make basic errors. Basic errors drain the reader’s confidence. They start to doubt the writing and worry they’ll be neither informed nor entertained.
Getting rid of basic errors takes time. But it’s time well spent. Spelling mistakes and grammar errors, for example. Use spell-check and ask someone to proofread your writing.
In our experience editing blogs, spelling mistakes and grammar errors are easily missed. Our articles are checked at least 3 times before publication. Mistakes still slip through though, but we run regular reviews to minimise them.
Basic error examples
We have a couple of regular spelling issues which drive us nuts. Every writer has their own issues.
For example, 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 it about the quality of insight – qualitative or quantity of insight – quantitative?
Also, we talk about brand identity. But, with our website font, “identity” and “identify” look really similar. Really damn similar. There’s just that one little curl’s difference from a “t” to an “f”. The spell-check never picks it up. Hard to spot in a 4,000+ word article.
More basic error examples
Beyond spelling mistakes, there are many other basic errors it’s easy to make. For example, too much passive voice. Our first articles were guilty of this. Sorry.
It’s something you pick up from academia and the business world. Writing reports which force you to speculate. To not have a definite opinion without tons of evidence, so you end up using the passive voice. But the passive voice means more words to make your point. Not great for the reader.
Opinions and actions are much more interesting to read. Both work better in the active voice. Make concrete statements. Avoid cop-out passive voice phrasing. Your readability will be a lot better when you do.
How to eliminate basic mistakes
Mistakes happen. You need to set up and run a process to eliminate them. Pick a couple at a time to focus on. Get into the habit of getting these right, and then move on to your next most common mistakes.
Spelling mistakes, for example.
We draft our blogs in Word. It spell-checks better than writing directly into WordPress. There’s more work transferring and publishing the text onto WordPress later. But, moving the text across and seeing it in a different context (and different font) helps identify mistakes not spotted in the draft.
There are also 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
Set up your editing process to allow time to look for and fix basic mistakes. Often, you don’t spot them in a first draft. But re-look at a piece of writing a week later and they stick out like a sore thumb.
For example, we run regular reviews on our blog content to look for basic errors. First drafts are written a week or more in advance. There’s always a time gap before we write the second draft. It’s always reviewed as we publish it, and again a few weeks after publication.
We can’t guarantee we eliminate all basic errors. But if there are any, it’s not for lack of effort to find them.
The more often you do these reviews, the easier it is to spot mistakes. Eliminating basic errors doesn’t necessarily make your writing great. However, it stops your writing from being really bad. Writing that’s “not bad” is a good step towards writing that’s good.
Habit 3 - Focus on reader needs
Most of us learn to write as a basic communication skill in childhood.
But writing well goes beyond what we learn at school. Writing well is a more advanced life skill which surprisingly few people are good at. The difference in skills comes from who you’re writing for.
As an everyday communication skill, we write to tell people what we, the writer think, feel or want. But great writers write based on what the reader thinks, feels or wants.
Great writing thinks about the benefit for the reader. It’s selfless. Not about the writer, but about the reader. That’s not something everyday writing does naturally. That’s more likely to be what’s in it for me rather than what’s in it for them? (See our how to be a better writer guide for more on this).
The realisation that writing is about more than technical skills like spelling and grammar boosts your writing expertise even more. Great writing requires empathy, and understanding context. You have to understand who’s going to be reading the writing, and what you want them to think, feel and do.
At a basic level, writing meets logical (information) and / or emotional (entertainment) needs for the reader. Skilled writers work out how to adapt their content and style to meet these different needs.
In general, information-based writing is more straightforward. Adding emotion and feeling to your writing takes more practice. Really great writing makes an emotional connection. Your personality and style have to come out in your writing. Otherwise, it gets boring fast.
Add visualisation and humour
To avoid boring your readers, you can use stories, examples and case studies in your writing. These help readers visualise what you’re writing about. Visualisation makes writing more impactful and memorable. Images stay longer in the mind than specific words.
Another option is humour. Seeing the funny side of a topic adds more feeling to your writing. When readers laugh, it’s an emotional connection. It doesn’t have to be just jokes and punchlines. Just don’t take a topic too seriously. Poke fun at it, and yourself. That usually makes for better writing.
To boost your own writing expertise, work out what types of emotional connections you want to make with your readers. For example, do you tell great stories? Are you funny? Empathetic? Identify the emotional “hook” of your writing style. Work out what fits your brand identity and personality.
Habit 4 - The value of first drafts
When you start to write, just getting words on the page can be tough.
Like the first time riding a bike, it feels awkward and unnatural. There are no stabilisers when you write. You just have to go for it.
You have to push your way through that mental barrier. Just start writing. Something. Anything.
Once the words start to come out, everything is instantly better.
Even if they’re the wrong words, and you never use them, some words are always better than no words. No words on the page is the worst.
It’s a good writing habit to not worry too much about getting it right first time. Just write 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. No one expects those to be good. The first draft always gets re-read, and re-written. Always.
None of your readers will see it, so don’t worry about it. Got an outrageous or provocative thought? Fuck it, get it down on the page. Let the words flow out. If you’ve planned the topic and already have a structure, great. But if not, just get some words out, anyway.
Then walk away. Let the words sit and brew like a good pot of tea. Because when you go back, you’ll have fresh eyes. You’ll have something 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 closer to the start. Cut and paste sections until everything flows better.
This re-writing and editing habit takes your writing expertise to another level. As per 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. The phrase “less is more” definitely applies to writing expertise.
When you start to edit your first draft, you soon spot “creep” words and phrases. So, do you need that “so” at the start of the sentence? It creeps in a lot in our first drafts. But often, it’s unneeded.
Then, there’s the word “then”. Do you 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 per our first draft, but “what makes the difference”. See, how that’s much tighter?
To be clear, what makes the most difference isn’t adding words, but removing them, without losing meaning. This concentrates the power of the words. We trim most of our first drafts by 5-10%, with no real difference to the meaning. This word power concentration makes the article flow better. It’s easier to follow. More readable. Getting more meaning from fewer words is a sign of great writing.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be clever or play with words. It just means making choices. Be decisive about what goes in. And, enjoy taking unnecessary words out.
Being clear is more important than being clever.
Clear AND clever writing
However, if you can be clear AND clever, so much the better. To close, we wanted to share some of our favourite clear and clever writing. It’s from a writing style called a Tom Swifty.
Tom Swifty’s are where you use adjectives or adverbs that have a double meaning in the context of a piece of dialogue.
For example :-
“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 for work, or you work with writers, focus on building good writing habits.
We covered 5 of our favourite habits in this article. We hope you can use some of these to enhance your own writing expertise :-
- Read about writing.
- Eliminate basic mistakes.
- Focus on the needs of the reader.
- Value first drafts.
- Cut out unneeded words and phrases.