Why read this? : Writing’s been a big focus for us this year. We’ve written a lot and learned a lot about writing. So, to end the year, we share the top 5 lessons we’ve learned from writing in 2020. Read this for ideas on how to improve your writing going into the New Year.
Lesson #1 - Build good writing habits
First, in terms of writing in 2020, we learned the value of building good writing habits. Good habits are how you improve all skills, and they definitely help improve your writing.
But, we set priorities and targets for our writing in 2020. And one of those targets was to post at least one new article every week.
And as this is our 54th article this year, we’ve now exceeded that target by 3.8%. (54 / 52 for the less metric-minded reader). That’s over 110,000 words in our blog articles alone. That makes our average post length over 2,000 words, or double the 1,000 words we targeted way back in one of our first posts about writing.
In the same article, back in January 2020, we were proud we’d managed to smash out 65,000 words across the whole website to that point. But now, despite many writing challenges along the way, our blogs and website copy added together is approaching the 400,000-word mark. (Update since this post first appeared – it’s now closer to 450,000 words).
It’s not quite War and Peace, but it’s not far off.
A writing habit that's like a muscle memory
When we think back to how we started writing this blog and read back some of our earlier posts, we can see we’ve built up a writing habit that’s like a muscle memory. It’s now easier and faster to write this content. We do our research on likely topics of interest. Automatically, we check keywords for inspiration to see what would help with SEO.
Our writing style has become more direct and easier to read. We mostly filter out complex words and phrases. Barely even have to think about it. The habit of simplification comes naturally. This means we’re now much happier with the quality and clarity of our writing.
Good writing habits have made us feel much fitter when it comes to writing.
Lesson #2 - Learn to draft, re-draft and edit
Writing in 2020 also reminded us writing takes a large amount of energy. That’s why being “fit” to write matters so much. It’s not the physical energy of sitting in front of a keyboard but the mental energy to generate ideas and thoughts. Then, to convert those into words on the page. Your brain’s highly active when you write. You burn calories and drain energy when you write.
We’ve learned to identify times when our writing energy is at its highest. We get as much down on the page as we can before the energy runs out. It’s hard to spend the whole day writing anyway. And to be honest, there’s always more going on in our business.
It’s also important not to underestimate how long it takes to write well. Writing is like the classic project triangle with speed, cost and quality. If you want to go fast, your quality level will drop. Or you need to pay someone to do it for you. The slower you go, the better the quality of your writing.
Writing takes time
And writing is a creative process. With creative processes, the more time you have, the better the quality you deliver. Obviously, it’s possible to write fast. Sometimes, you have no choice if there’s an important customer deadline.
But long-term, it’s important to build in time to clear the brain and build up your writing energy reserves.
There’s always a bunch of other jobs you need to do. That’s fine. In fact, the variety of working in a small business is a big plus for writing.
As a team, we also spend a lot of time editing content. It’s amazing how many typos, grammar errors and logic errors you find in a first draft. And in a second draft. Despite our good intentions, mistakes do still happen in writing.
Having a clear review and editing schedule helps to eliminate many, but not all mistakes. We make sure editing happens with fresh eyes and high energy levels. The importance of this process has been another big creative lesson writing in 2020 has given us.
Tighten up the words
But editing isn’t just about eliminating mistakes. It’s also about tightening up the words so your meaning is clearer. More succinct. Stephen King talks about aiming for a 10% reduction in content between the first and second drafts. It’s a good ratio to aim for.
We also like the writing tip that you should imagine every word you remove from the first draft earns you a dollar. Focuses the mind, right? Makes you want your writing to be tight. Editing helps you do that.
Lesson #3 - Start with a clear structure and headline
We recently read Ogilvy on Advertising by noted adman David Ogilvy. It was written before the internet was even invented, so parts of it are a little dated. But it’s still a great collection of lessons from the advertising world, much of which still rings true today. And in particular on copywriting, as that was how he first got into the industry.
He shares statistics on print advertising which shows that for all the people exposed to your advertising, only around 10%-20% make it past the headline to read the body copy. We’ve seen nothing to suggest this is any different in the modern digital age. In fact, with low attention spans on digital media channels, it’s probably even lower now.
Having a strong headline and structure up-front, which makes it obvious to the reader what they’re getting is important. You can’t “push” writing at someone. It’s their choice to read or not. So, you have to think about how you can “pull” them in. First impressions make a difference.
We’ve learned to write the headline first. And, then write our copy so it relates to the headline. This stops us from wandering off on tangents and including irrelevant content. Something we know we did quite often with our initial posts.
In fact, our better-performing articles almost always have the strongest headlines and a clear story structure to them. They’re also the ones we wrote with the reader most in mind.
Lesson #4 - Write with the reader in mind
Our most popular articles are also the ones which answer questions our audience has.
We’ve learned to really focus on writing with the reader in mind.
Some of our early posts were about things we thought were important but which we soon learned weren’t so important to our audience.
When you start to write blogs, that’s not a bad place to start, because those are the things you’re passionate about.
But, your writing has more impact when it’s focused on meeting the needs of your target audience. Your audience appreciates you more when you write relevant and meaningful content which helps them.
And it’s not just the content itself, it’s how you tell the story. It’s the way you lay out the words on the page. The simplicity of the words you choose. And even the length and layout of sentences and paragraphs.
You need to look at the words you write on the page and imagine a reader being educated, entertained or otherwise engaged. That’s when you know your writing’s on the right track.
Or even, the write track.
Lesson #5 - Choose your words carefully
Our final lesson from writing in 2020 is there’s a limit to how much a reader can take in one go.
If you have a lot of natural enthusiasm for your topic (as we do with marketing, creative and e-Commerce), it’s hard not to want to show your reader everything you know.
But this enthusiasm usually leads to long first drafts, with too many thoughts which are difficult to follow. You risk losing the reader.
You must go back after that first draft and choose the words you share carefully.
Take out anything that’s not needed.
There are many more writing lessons writing in 2020 has given us. This post could have been much longer. For example, we regularly refer back to key books about writing like 50 Key Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clarke and On Writing Well by William Zinsser to remind us how to keep making our writing better.
We’ll come back to some of those at a future date. (See also our article on how we’ve used some of these lessons to improve our writing about marketing).
Conclusion - what we've learned writing in 2020
To close 2020, we’ll leave you with this thought.
When you write, you let a part of your brain, a part of your soul spill out onto the page.
That’s both liberating and slightly scary. Your thoughts, ideas, hopes and aspirations are out there for all to see. But, when you do it, and you do it well, you set yourself and your business up to create connections with people. You let people see a bit of yourself and your brand. That’s a brave, but rewarding thing to do.
Because with the way 2020 has panned (pandemic-ed?) out, connecting with people through writing is more important than ever.