Five Writing Tips
I get asked pretty frequently for writing tips, and usually I don’t have anything useful to say except for the Pottery Teacher story (see tip #5). But not anymore: here’s a set of five writing tips you can put to work right now. Everyone writes differently, but hopefully these are useful for you. Enjoy!
Writing routines and beating publishing anxiety:
I don’t think you need to write every day. Some days your writing brain is off and that’s fine. But you need to ship something every week. Email newsletters are good for this because they’ll also help you build your own distribution, and services like Substack make it trivially easy to set up and manage.
If you’re nervous about sending fresh writing in an email newsletter to an audience whose opinion you care about, here’s a trick I use. Every week, I write the essay that becomes the main section of my email newsletter and then the first place I publish it is on my own website. Hardly anyone ever goes to alexdanco.com directly just to browse around; that’s not how distribution works. (You can write the essay of the decade, but if all you do is post it on your own blog, no one’s gonna read it.)
You can use this to your advantage, though. When you post it to your blog, it becomes public to you. So you can cheat the initial feeling of being anxious that the writing isn’t good enough: post it, just to somewhere it won’t be read much. Then sleep on it, go back the next day and maybe you feel like editing it or proofing it again or something, and then copy paste it into your newsletter and then send it to your distribution. The cheating comes from breaking up the anxiety step into two parts that each feel a lot less significant on their own.
Meanwhile, get a sense of what your writing’s brand is. A brand is a promise, and a good brand is a promise kept. What does your audience, even if they are tiny, feel they’ve been promised from you? As you get a better understanding of what that brand is, you’ll get a quicker sense for when to hit publish and when to keep working.
How to beat writer’s block:
Never start with a blank page. Start with anything. It could be an outline, it could be starting with quotes or excerpts from what other people have said about your topic or even an adjacent one. It could be “I want to make this point, and here’s why.” It could be “here are three people who I hope get something out of this, and why.” It doesn’t even have to be text: one trick I usepretty often is grabbing screenshots of tweets and throwing them into my Evernote doc. You can get rid of all of this later, although you may decide you want to keep it after all.
Why do this? Because it’s easier to write sentences 2, 3 and 4 of a paragraph you’ve already started than the opening sentence. And it’s easier to write pages 2, 3 and 4 of an essay when you’ve already written the first page. You use a different part of your brain when you’re in the middle of making a point versus when you’re trying to start one.
By throwing in external stuff, like other people’s quotes or tweets, you can short circuit this to your advantage. Start with something, write the middle, then go back and delete that prompt if you feel you need to, and write your own.
A related hint: if you find yourself stuck and you can’t find a way to move forward, try rearranging what you’ve already written. It’ll reset that point you were in the middle of making, and give you a fresh start at trying to re-complete your thought, but with different lead-in material. Sometimes that’s all it takes. Just copy the section you’re working on into a new page, rearrange a bunch of the sentences, maybe delete some of the useless ones (there’s always some). And before you know it, you’re back writing fluidly again.
The magic word you should use more:
Want to learn one magic word that will immediately make year writing better? Meanwhile. Why? Most people, when they string thoughts and ideas together, rely on joining words like “so”, “then”, “therefore”, “however”, or “except”. There’s nothing wrong with them, but what they do is establish a chain of thinking that goes, “A, then B, then C, then D.” It’s linear. Even counterfactual joining words like “however”, “but”, “nevertheless”, even though they establish opposition, are still doing so in a one-track fashion.
Meanwhile does something else. It establishes parallel tracks of thought. A, therefore B. Meanwhile, C, yet D is a more powerful way to communicate complex ideas than one-track linear writing. When the punchline eventually comes, and those lines of thought collide into something interesting, you can make a better point than if you only had one track to work with.
How to write faster and more authentically:
Read your own writing. Read it all the time. Not just reading your outlines or drafts; that doesn’t count. I mean reading your finished writing product, not in order to edit but to absorb it. I spend at least an hour a week reading my own writing.
Why? If you want to write well, you need to read a lot, so that you can get fluent how good writing sounds and feels. So reading long-form writing from people who know what they’re doing is a must. You’ll absorb their logical and rhetorical tools, and their lyrical style; eventually, and probably without realizing it, you’ll incorporate it into your own writing.
But why read yours? Because the most important writing style to master is your own. An hour spent reading your own writing will make every next thing you write maybe half a percent easier and half a percent faster. It won’t feel like much at first, but it pays compound interest. Phrases and constructions will come more easily to you because you’ve read them before, in your own work. You don’t need to concentrate or critically analyze your old stuff. Let your subconscious do the work, it’ll do a better job anyway.
In time, you’ll find that you’re writing faster, with less effort, and in a way that feels more authentic.
Just write more:
A pottery teacher has two students. On Monday he tells the first student: “Your job this week is to try to create one perfect pot. Spend as much time as you need. Make it perfect.” Then he tells the second student: “Your job this week is to make as many pots as possible. I don’t care if they’re nice. Crank ‘em out.” Then on Friday, he comes back. What does he find?
Not only has the second student produced hundreds more pots than the first student (who’s laboured over his one shot at glory); every single one of her pots is better. The way you learn how to make a perfect pot is by making a lot of pots. Period.
Go make some pots.