Snapshot :- As our website now has over half a million words, we wanted to share 5 habits that have enhanced our writing expertise. Learn these 5 habits – reading about writing; eliminating basic mistakes; focussing on reader needs; valuing first drafts; and eliminating unneeded words and phrases to boost your own writing expertise.
Setting yourself the goal of enhancing your writing expertise feels like a major commitment. There’s so much to learn.
Where do you even start?
The difference between everyday writing and the skills of professional writers is like the difference between home cooks, and the winners of Masterchef. Expertise comes from a regular focus on learning your skills. It comes from practice and building good habits.
Great writers all talk about the huge amount of effort it took before they became great writers. Nobody starts out a great writer. Dedication and practice count for a lot.
Good writing habits also help.
Habits get you into a rhythm of learning new techniques and regularly stretching your writing skills.
Just writing on a regular basis is a good place to start.
But there are more specific habits you can develop. This week we share some of our own writing habits that enhance our writing expertise.
Like any skill, the more you practice, the easier it gets. Practice makes perfect, but only through learning from making mistakes. The more mistakes you learn from at the start, the fewer you make further down the line.
Fewer mistakes means better quality writing. Better quality writing means better experiences for your audience.
That’s a good thing, right?
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, those days are not the norm for most writers.
On a bad day, writing feels like a grind. Like wading through mud. You get easily distracted. The neighbour’s dog barking. The guy with the leaf blower. Checking Twitter.
On a good day, writing feels great. But on most days, it feels like work. Work you still enjoy of course, but don’t underestimate the effort and dedication it takes to start writing. That’s why habits matter so much to build writing expertise. Habits help you practice good writing skills automatically.
Set writing targets to build habits
Take setting regular writing targets, 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 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 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 enhance 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 certainly worked well for us.
A regular writing habit builds writing expertise
Our serious writing habit has lead to almost a hundred articles, made up of over half a million words since our first blog post. That’s not quite War and Peace (587,287 words in War and Peace, if you’re interested), but it’s not far off.
What we’ve gained from this writing habit is an ongoing improvement in our writing expertise.
That means clearer, more interesting and more professional articles. 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.
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’s the five writing habits we’ve found most useful to improve our writing expertise.
Habit 1 - Read about writing
Our recent article on the 4Ps of marketing 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 blogs 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.
Seven rules of usage and eleven principles of composition. Instructive guides to form, and 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 our readers see it.
(we’ve more examples in our article on writing lessons from 2020)
Your first draft will be 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 re-write and edit.
Cutting them out is like squeeing a blister. There’s something strangely satisfying about taking out rogue, unneeded words.
Readers rarely want more words. They want better words. Brevity helps you level up your writing expertise. The more concisely you write, the easier it is for the reader to stick with you.
Strunk and White give some great examples. Common writing phrases you read a lot, and how to say them 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
We mention Stunk and White only because it’s the one we read most recently. But, there’s many other great books on writing. As per 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
Reading about writing is a great habit. Take notes and refer back to them often. Follow their advice, and improvements in your writing expertise will follow.
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 that leaves you better informed or entertained, or both.
What they don’t do, is make basic errors. Basic errors erode confidence for the reader. They start to doubt what you write, and worry they’ll be neither informed of 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 else to proof read your writing.
In our experience editing blogs, spelling mistakes and grammar errors are easily missed. All of our articles are checked at least three times. Some mistakes occasionally still slip through, but we run regular checks to get rid of them.
Basic error examples
We have a couple of regular spelling issues that 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’s many other basic errors it’s easy to make.
Too much passive voice, for example. Our first articles were guilty of this.
It’s something you pick up from academia and the business world. Writing reports that force you to speculate, and not have a definite opinion without tons of evidence, which pushes you into using the passive voice. But the passive voice means more words to make your point. This isn’t great for the reader.
Opinions and actions are more interesting to read. Both work better in the active voice.
Make concrete statements. Avoid cop-out phrasing, and get rid of it when you see it.
We know we’re guilty of this. We often talk about “might be” this and “maybe that”. But these are cop-out phrases, not concrete statements.
We’ve not completely purged ourselves of this bad writing habit, but we’re getting better. Our newer articles read better read than our older ones because of it.
How to eliminate basic mistakes
Mistakes happen. It’s a gradual process of practising and reviewing 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. Old-fashioned maybe, but we prefer the layout and flexibility. And it spell checks better than writing directly into WordPress.
There’s more work transferring and publishing the text on to WordPress later. But, moving the text across and seeing it in a different context (and different font) 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
Set up your writing and editing process 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 like a sore thumb.
So, with our blog content for example, we run regular reviews to 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. 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 becomes to spot mistakes.
Eliminating basic errors doesn’t necessarily make your writing great But, it stops your writing from being really bad. Writing that’s “not bad” is a good step on the way to 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 as children. Writing well is a more advanced life skill that surprisingly few people are good at. The difference in skills comes in who you’re writing for.
As an everyday communication skill, we write to tell people what we, the writer think or want. But great writers write based on what the reader thinks or wants.
Great writing thinks about the benefit for the reader. What’s in it for them? There’s a selflessness about great writing.
That’s not something everyday writing does naturally. That’s more likely to be about what’s in it for me?
(see also our guide on how to be a better writer for more on this.)
When you realise that writing is about more than technical skills like spelling and grammar, it boosts your writing expertise even more.
Great writing demands broader skills like empathy, and understanding context. You have to understand the goal of the writing, who’s going to be reading it, and what you want them to think and feel.
At a basic level, most writing meets logical (information) and / or emotional (entertaining or engagement) needs for the reader. Part of the skill of writing is learning how to adapt content and style to meet these 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 needs to come out through 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 for the reader. Mental images tend to stay longer in the mind than specific words.
Another option to avoid boring your readers is humour. Seeing the funny side of a topic adds more feeling to your writing. When readers laugh, it’s an emotional connection.
Humour 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. Are you particularly empathetic, for example? Do you tell great stories? Are you funny?
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 riding a bike for the first time, it feels awkward and unnatural. 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.
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.
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 actual readers will ever see it, so why 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. 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 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 enhancing your writing expertise.
When you start to edit your first draft, you soon spot “creep” words and phrases.
So, do you really 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 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 to follow. More meaning from fewer words is the 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
Though if you can be clear AND clever, so much the better. To close this article, we wanted to share some of our favourite clear and clever writing. This is 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.
“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, focus on building good writing habits.
In this article we covered five habits we use the most often. Apply these habits and they’ll enhance 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 hope you can build some of those habits too.
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