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What we’ve learned writing in 2020

Writer writing showing writing skills

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Why read this? : Writing’s been a big focus for us since we launched Three-Brains. We’ve written a lot. And that means we’ve learned a lot. So, to close out the year, we share our 5 favourite lessons we’ve learned from writing in 2020. Read this for ideas on how to improve your writing as we head into 2021. 

As we covered what we’ve learned about e-Commerce in 2020 last week, we go more creative this week and focus on what we’ve learned about writing this year. We’ve invested time in building out blog and website and that’s mainly driven by writing. We’ll share our reflections on what writing in 2020 has taught us, with our 5 favourite writing lessons from this very challenging 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 your skills. 

The demands of other parts of our business like our coaching and consulting and T-shirt businesses mean we don’t always find the time to write every day. Much as we’d like to. 

But, we set priorities and targets for our writing in 2020. And one of those targets was to post at least one new blog article every week.

Writer writing showing writing skills

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 really 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

Far out. 

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. Which 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 so much the physical energy of sitting down in front of a keyboard, but the mental energy to generate ideas and thoughts. Then to covert 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 energy for writing 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 actually a big plus for writing. 

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

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, of these sorts of 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. 

But editing isn’t just about eliminating mistakes. 

Tighten up the words

It’s also about tightening up the words so you convey the meaning in a more succinct and clear way. As we mentioned way back in our brainstorming, Stephen King and T-shirts article, the great writer himself always aims for a 10% reduction in content between the first and second draft. 

It’s a good ratio to aim for. We also like the related tip we came across, that you should imagine every word you remove from the first draft earns you a dollar. 

That really focusses the mind, doesn’t it? Makes it very clear why you need to make your writing concise. 

Editing helps you do that. 

Lesson #3 - Start with a clear structure and headline

We recently read the excellent Ogilvy on Advertising book by David Ogilvy. It’s a little dated in places. It was written before the internet was even invented, after all. But it’s still a great collection of lessons about the world of advertising, 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% to 20% actually 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. 

It’s clear having a strong headline and structure up-front, which makes obvious to the reader what they’re getting is really important. 

You can’t “push” writing at someone. It’s their choice to read or not. So, you have to think how you can “pull” people in. That means first impressions really do make a difference. 

We’ve learned to write the headline first. And, then write our copy so it relates back to the headline. This stops us wandering off on tangents and including irrelevant content. Something we know we did quite often with our initial posts. 

In fact, our better performing guides and 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 guides and article 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 soo 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. 

Young woman sitting cross legged on a couch reading a book in front of some bookshelves

But, your writing has more impact when it’s focussed 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 (like 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 end up being difficult to follow. You risk losing the reader. 

It’s important to go back after that first draft, and choose the words you share carefully.

Man writing blue shirt

Take out anything that’s not needed. 

There are many, many more writing lessons that writing in 2020 has given us. We could have made this post much longer. 

We regularly refer back to key writing guides like 50 Key Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clarke and On Writing Well by William Zinser to remind us how to keep making our writing better. We’ll come back to some of those in 2021. 

(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 off 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 on to the page.

That’s both liberating and slightly scary. Your thoughts, ideas, hopes and aspirations 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. And that’s not just a good thing.

That’s a great thing. 

Because with the way 2020 has panned (pandemic-ed?) out, connecting with people through writing is more important than ever. 

Check out our writing guides to learn how to grow your writing skills. Or contact us, if you need specific help raising the writing skills in your business.

Photo credits

Person writing near mug : Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Woman on couch reading : Photo by iam Se7en on Unsplash

Man in blue shirt writing : Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

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