If You Want Your Words to Hit, Respect People’s Time
Paying an editor helps too
A month after arriving in Vietnam, my dad was asked to give a presentation in front of the big wigs. Before taking the stage, he put his work in front of his boss for feedback.
“This is good”, his boss said, “but cut it in half.”
My dad was dumbstruck. But he bit his tongue, sat down, and got rid of every single word that didn’t serve a purpose.
A few hours later, he was commended for telling his superiors exactly what they needed to know and not a word more.
Fast-forward 50 years. According to my dad, the advice to “Cut, cut, cut and then cut some more” is still the most important lesson he’s ever learned in communication. This is because of the simple fact that people are busy, and if you want to earn their attention, you better respect their time.
Over the last two years, I’ve become obsessed with writing. Hands down, my biggest challenge with creating words that hit is learning how to say less with more. This means no matter how much it hurts my heart, I have to kill my darlings from time to time. It also means no matter how much it hurts my head, I have to sit with complex ideas until my fingers turn them into simple language.
Both of these things are hard to do. But, like my dad says, “Hard writing makes for easy reading.”
I’m still not where I want to be as a writer. However, my dad’s lesson to be respectful of other people’s time — alongside the five lessons below — has helped me get closer to writing concise, actionable, and honest articles.
1. If you’re scared to bleed, people will never read
When I first began writing, some people clearly thought I was embarrassing myself. At the time, their words stung, and I allowed them to fill me with doubt. It got to the point where I seriously considered not sharing my work with others. But a few people encouraged me to stick with it, and I’m glad they did. Within months, for every person who made fun of me, ten other people were waiting to thank me.
Sharing the story you’re scared to tell isn’t easy. But if I’ve learned anything since I began writing, it’s that these stories are the ones people can’t wait to hear. So suck it up, put your truth down on paper, and allow yourself to be vulnerable.
The coolest writers aren’t any smarter than you. They just have the guts to open themselves up to the world and, in turn, the world opens itself up to them.
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” — Lester Bangs
2. Ignore the trends and focus on developing your personal style
A few years ago, Pharrell Williams was giving a master class at NYU to a group of music students. After listening to the work of a young musician named Maggie Rogers, he turned to her and said the words every creative would kill to hear: “I have absolutely zero notes for you. And I am going to tell you why. You are doing your own thing. It’s singular.”
When starting, you should glean everything you can from your mentors. You should also read every book you can get your hands on and try to make friends with the writers you admire. But if you want your work to connect with your audience, you have to give your gut the last word. In short, you have to follow the lead of artist and author Austin Kleon and aim to see like your heroes — not be like them.
“Just because Mark Manson used the word `Fuck’ in the title of his book, doesn’t mean you should too.” — Ryan Holiday
3. Do yourself a favor and pay to work with an editor
Most people love to say there are no shortcuts when it comes to success. But when it comes to writing, there’s one shortcut you shouldn’t ignore: paying an editor early on and allowing them to destroy your work.
For a few hundred bucks, they’ll help you clean up your grammar, write headlines that stick, and make your work easier for the reader to understand and enjoy. In short, they’ll teach you in a few hours the lessons that have taken them a lifetime to learn.
The bottom line is that most people don’t invest in themselves. However, if you want your writing to make a dent in this world, it pays — both literally and figuratively — not to be like most people.
“Stop thinking about how you are going to promote your work and instead focus on investing in your work.” — My dad
4. Give your work time to breathe
When I first started, like many others, I was hungry to publish my work. However, an experienced writer friend of mine stopped me one day and asked me what my rush was. Then he went on to suggest I wait a few days before publishing to see if something better would emerge.
This was hard in the beginning. But it didn’t take me long to see the value in doing it. Indeed, the parts of my writing that connected most with my audience were the very ones that came to me after I had stepped away from my words for a few days.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of my favorite writers are prolific, but a lot more of them are patient. This is because experience has taught them that, more often than not, the difference between good and great comes down to giving the dots they’ve collected enough time to really connect.
Quick aside: During one of his podcast episodes, Tim Ferriss said he once waited two years to post an article because he felt the timing wasn’t right. Remember that the next time you catch yourself hurrying to post something just because you feel the need to not let your audience forget about you.
“Patience is not passive; on the contrary, it is active; it is concentrated strength.” — Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton
5. Stop worrying about what everyone else is doing, and stick to your own pace
Asking your favorite writer what time of the day they do their best work is a waste of breath. Insisting they tell you how often you should publish is just as pointless. This is because the only writing process that matters is the one that works for you.
If you prefer to write one solid article per month, stop asking people for advice and just do it.
If you prefer listening to death metal while you write, crank it up.
If you want to grow your audience, the only thing that matters is carving out time to practice your craft. And if that means you have to wear a winter hat in the middle of summer to get in the zone, steal a line from Ayodeji Awosika and rock that mother-fucker!
“Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.” — Lev Grossman
Pulling it all together:
When looking over the above list, a few themes become apparent. Editing matters, for one. Being patient is crucial too.
But I can’t help thinking that the most important aspect of creating a real bond with your readers is simply being respectful of their time by being honest and showing them the real you.
So take the advice of James Altucher and allow yourself to bleed a little every time you sit down.
If you do, your relationship with your audience won’t be the only thing that becomes stronger — the relationship you have with yourself will also.
This is for the simple fact that the best way to meet the person you want to become is by being brutally honest with the person you really are.