How to Write — 9 Lessons from Review of 50 Writing Advice Articles
Medium writers love to write about writing.
In fact, writing is one of the most popular subjects on the platform. There are over 263,000 posts on Medium with the “Writing” tag. I devour these articles, even though they can be repetitive. I find it comforting. It’s like having a writing coach whispering gentle reminders, or a cheerleader hyping me up.
Medium apparently caught onto my not-so-subtle obsession. My feed slowly became exclusively writing content. But I kept clicking, so I saw more and more articles on writing. Eventually, I realized this interest could actually be useful! Rather than passively looking at one-or-two articles a day, I could do a deep dive on a ton of articles, distill the most important lessons, and share the results.
First, I found 50 articles which met the following criteria:
- Must be from 2020
- Must have at least 1000 claps
- Must be focused on writing advice — does not cover satire about writing, or narrative pieces on the life of a writer.
- No more than 3 articles from any one author
From there, I found related pieces of advice. I gathered them, and found 9 themes that emerged as the most important and the most often repeated. These are summarized below, focused on strategies that you can use to improve your success as a writer, and a few links to recommended articles.
Brevity and Focus
Almost all writing is at least 10% too long in the first draft. A lot of writing is still 10% too long in the final draft. This doesn’t mean one should cut out every adjective or side-plot that is not strictly required, but you need to look at them carefully. Are they necessary? Do I have to “kill my darlings”?
Focus is one of the reasons brevity is essential. Each piece of writing, whether it is a news bulletin or a multi-part fantasy epic, needs to have a focal point. Without it, the writing loses purpose and direction. This doesn’t mean all writing needs a “moral” or “message” — though these can be helpful. Even a humorous story should try to build toward a cumulative punchline to tie the whole thing together. Focus helps the reader feel satisfied.
Interesting experiences lead to interesting writing! Great writers are able to make you care about a topic you have never had an interest in. Whether it is Malcolm Gladwell deconstructing minor league hockey, Ernest Hemingway glorifying fishing, or Anthony Bourdain bitching about brunch, these authors share their fascination and passion. This only comes from having a stimulating life.
I am reading The Overstory by Richard Powers at the moment. The novel is about trees. Seriously. The book would be an unreadable bore if it were by any other writer. However, the author manages to pair his intense fascination with plants and his superb writing skills to craft a captivating novel. Without this passion the book would be an absolute failure.
These lived experiences don’t even need to take place outside your home — which is convenient given current circumstances. Reading and research are perfectly good substitutes. Take in your experiences and transform them into captivating prose. If you can get your reader excited or pissed off about a subject they have never thought of, your writing will be memorable.
Writing has a reputation of being lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Some people are able to do great work all by themselves, but having peers to work with will often improve your writing. Whether it’s brainstorming ideas, exchanging recommendations within a group, or having an editing buddy, working with others can help you grow.
That said, a bad writing community is worse than no writing community. Several articles were quick to point out these groups can end up being demotivating time sinks. Are your writing buddies spending more time complaining than writing? Do they put effort into edits and feedback? Do you help one another network? I’m not suggesting you weigh all your colleagues in a brutal cost/benefit calculation, but you should be aware that these groups can become a burden.
If you are not failing sometimes this means you are not aiming high enough. Successful authors of all stripes need to pass through a gauntlet of rejection letters, no-responses from editors, and projects that fall apart. Even if you do manage to get your work published, someone on the internet is bound to hate it. You need to accept this reality, learn from the useful feedback, and move on to the next project.
Perfectionism can be a sign you are afraid of failure. Editing is important, but continually re-editing is an attempt to immunize yourself from rejection. Real writers need to write a lot, and if you are getting drawn into an endless cycle of revisions it will limit your productivity.
Perfectionism and over-editing can also erase your voice. It’s like washing your clothes — a light rinse will help them look their best, but soaking them in bleach will erase all their color and personality. It is important to take pride in your work, but watch to make sure your writing is actually improving.
“I have suffered for my art… Now it’s your turn!” — Good joke, bad approach to writing.
You want to make the reader’s job easy. There are countless books, videos and activities competing for their attention — convince them to hang around. Writing that is fun, light, enthusiastic, and non-judgmental is more digestible than work that is stuffy and joyless. Keep your reader entertained and they will keep reading.
This brightness and fun comes first from your love and enthusiasm for writing. Every piece is going to have frustrating passages, but you must do your best to keep a positive mindset. Finding a good writing community will help — talking through rough patches can bring joy back into your writing.
Obviously, there are types of content that are not meant to be “fun”. Emotional memoirs recounting a life of trauma, or sober analysis of a tragic event, are going to be heavy. Still, writing that is bitter from beginning to end is going to be tough to swallow — adding a dash of levity or humor can make the read less punishing. If you want an example on how to accomplish this, I would recommend watching Nanette. Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special is a brilliant lesson in using comedy to approach deeply emotional topics.
Writing is a Business
Do you want to grow your impact as a writer? Serious question. Some people are happy blogging for a few dozen followers, and there is nothing wrong with that. But what if you want to build an audience? Become a freelance writer? Or a full-time author? If this is you, you need to think about the business side of writing.
This is a big topic, but let’s run through a few quick subjects worth looking into when growing your impact as a writer:
- Know your audience — learning who you are aiming to reach and where they spend their time is the best way to connect with potential readers.
- Platform — different places are suited for different types of writing and different monetization models. For example, Medium, Substack, or a personal website are popular choices for blogs. Research them, figure out where you want to focus your attention given the type of work you plan to do.
- Search Engine Optimization — SEO governs what shows up when people perform internet searches either through Google or within a site. It sounds technical, but a few simple lessons help a lot.
This may seem like it spoils the purity of your craft, but you need to be practical. Think of it this way: you are making content that you think is good, right? In that case, don’t you want to get this content in front of the people who will actually enjoy it? Researching the right platform, or learning about SEO isn’t about gaming the system; it’s about making sure you are actually delivering your content to the people who would benefit from it!
Be Intentional with Writing Time
Writing is time consuming. It is a beast that must be constantly fed. Successful writers develop habits to get the most out of their writing time. There are only so many hours in the day, and for those of us who are not full-time writers, you really need to think about efficiency.
Distractions are the first thing to address. You may think you can watch Netflix and write and the same time. You can’t. Stop it. Even music with lyrics is suspect. If you really need additional stimulation to maintain focus, try instrumental music or a white noise track. Personally, I prefer silence.
Habits are also useful. Picking a time of day which you dedicate to writing will help you focus on your work, and ensure this time is used efficiently. Schedules are also useful, such as the Pomodoro technique. If you are struggling to feel productive in your writing time, experiment with your process to find an environment that maximizes your productivity.
Have a Voice
All writing has a voice. Even news reports and academic articles strive for a neutered and flat tone. That sterility is important given what these articles are trying to accomplish. This “voicelessness” is a tone and style intended to communicate authority to the reader. It is impossible to escape having a voice, so you should be thoughtful about the atmosphere your writing creates.
Most content is not meant to be written in an emotional vacuum like news reports. Add character, emotion, or humor — anything to make your writing pop. You don’t need to go overboard if that isn’t your style, but don’t write like a stiff if you don’t have to.
Vulnerability is one of the best ways to inject personality into your writing. Talk about mistakes you’ve made, or lessons you’ve learned. Self-deprecating jokes are handy in this regard, as they build familiarity, without being too heavy. This article started with me making fun of myself for being fixated on Medium articles about writing — this a bit of light humor, but it is also relatable! It was my attempt to develop a relationship with the reader, and get you invested in what I had to say.
There is one piece of advice which came up more often than any other: write.
Writing is an art, like painting, playing an instrument, or acting. If you want to be a concert pianist you need to put in a ton of hours. Obviously, some people are more natural than others, but even the gifted will need to devote time to perfect their craft.
People don’t often think about “practicing” writing in the same way people practice singing or dancing. After all, we all know how to write, right? If this is how you feel, you might be in for a tough road. There are strategies to develop faster, but there are no shortcuts. This is one of the many reasons to be suspicious of any article promising the secret to becoming a successful writer overnight.
You must commit to taking on writing. Set goals for yourself. Experiment with different types of content. Push yourself to improve. Start small, and gradually build. Be ready to throw out bad work and start again if you have to.
Growing as a writer is hard work. Each of these lessons is a vast subject, which can only be fully learned through your own experience. Hopefully, these reflections will provide a road map on how to accelerate your journey.