What we’ve learned writing in 2020

Writer writing showing writing skills

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Snapshot : Writing has been a big focus for the Three-Brains team since our launch. So, to close out the year, we share the 5 biggest lessons we’ve learned from writing in 2020. 

As we covered some of our lessons from e-Commerce from 2020 last week, we wanted to pick a more creative topic for our final post of the year. And given that this blog and building our website content has been a big part of our year, it seems a fitting way to close out this year’s articles with some reflection on what writing in 2020 has taught us. 

So, here’s our top 5 writing lessons from this very challenging year. 

Lesson #1 - Build good writing habits

Firstly, in terms of writing in 2020, we learned the value of building good habits when it comes to writing.

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.

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 posts 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 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 that 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 to see what would help with SEO

Our writing style has become more direct and easier to read. We reject words and phrases that are too complex. 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 that writing takes a large amount of energy. That’s why being “fit” to write is important. 

It’s not so much the physical energy of sitting down in front of a keyboard, but the mental energy to create ideas and thoughts, and covert them into words on the page. Your brain is highly active when you write, and this drains energy and calories as you write. 

We’ve learned to identify times when our energy for writing is at its highest. We aim to get as much down on the page 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 where you have speed, cost and quality. If you want to go fast, your quality level will drop, or you need to pay more people to get involved with the writing. The slower you go, the better the quality of your writing will be. 

Writing takes time

And writing is a creative process, and with creative processes, the more time you have, the better the quality you can deliver. Obvious, 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 that need doing anyway. And, that’s absolutely fine. In fact, the variety of working in a small business is actually a big plus for writing. 

As a team, we also spend a lot of time editing and reviewing 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 that writing in 2020 has given us. 

But editing is not just about eliminating mistakes. 

Tighten up the words

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

That fact showed us that having a clear headline and structure for the content up-front, that made it clear right away what the reader would get from the article or guide was 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 are important. 

We’ve learned to write the headline first. And, then write our copy so that it relates back to the headline. This stops us wandering off on too many tangents and including content that is not relevant. Something when we reviewed some of our first posts, we had a terrible tendency to do. 

In fact, our better performing guides and posts almost always have the strongest headlines and the clearest structure up-front. They’re also the ones that we wrote with the reader most in mind. 

Lesson #4 - Write with the reader in mind

Our most popular guides and blog posts are also the ones which answer questions that our audience has.

We have learned to really focus on writing with the reader in mind. 

Some of our early posts were about things that we thought were important, but were less 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 a bigger impact when you research the needs of your target audience. When you write content that helps them, and is relevant and meaningful, your audience appreciates you more. 

And it’s not just the content itself, it’s the way 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. 

When you can look at the words you write on the page and imagine a reader being educated, entertained or otherwise engaged in the content, that’s when you know your writing is on the right track. 

Or even, the write track. 

Lesson #5 - Choose your words carefully

Our final lesson from writing in 2020 is that 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, that just have too many thoughts that end up being difficult to follow. 

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 the best ways to keep making our writing better. We’ll come back to some of those in 2021. 

So, for now 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, connection with people through writing is more important than ever. 

Check out our writing guides to find out more about how to grow your writing skills. Or contact us, if you’d like to discuss any specific writing questions for your business. 

Photo credits

Person writing near mug : Photo by Green Chameleon 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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