I’ve been writing, and making a career of it, for well over a decade now. I’ve done all kinds of writing, from SEO copy to personal essays to novels. Over the years, I’ve collected a bunch of best-practice tips. Here they are.
1. Don’t Write for Other Writers
It’s natural to aim your pen at other writers, yet it’s almost always a mistake — one I’ve made a lot, along with every other writer I know.
We crave appreciation, and no one will ever love our way with words like another writer. But, unless writers are your target market, you shouldn’t be writing for them.
Writers aren’t necessarily buyers, yet many writers write to impress their peers. Don’t do that. Write for buyers instead. Use the language of your market, and talk to them, not at them. Always place clarity over cleverness, especially when writing online.
I learned that lesson early, but chose to ignore it for far too long. Buyers aren’t looking for clever wordplay or impressive verbal linguistics, and the last thing you want to do is confuse a buyer with ill-advised wit.
This doesn’t mean your copy should be a vacuum of personality. You should pour as much of your personality into your copy as you can, but be careful to never fall over the edge. Your focus should be on driving behavior, solving a specific problem, and letting your reader know why your solution is better than the competition’s. If this sounds like a fine line to balance on, it is.
You want a lifelong relationship with your customer. That won’t be built by being clever. Consider how you would help a casual acquaintance — someone you’re not too familiar with but are trying to help. You would focus on her problems, provide proof that you know what you’re talking about, and speak in the same language she would use among friends and colleagues.
Online, it’s easy to fall into the trap of hunting for digital kudos. It took me a full year to leap this hurdle and get clarity on what really matters to online buyers. This matters for you too, and the future of your business. You want people to look forward to everything you do, whether it’s building products or sitting down with a glass of wine and writing your next great book. This will be easier to do if you’re focused on driving action. There is little, if any, profit in getting readers to compliment your writing.
2. Write, Write, Write
It won’t always be easy, but if you’re a working writer you must write every day — no excuses.
You could be forgiven for taking Sunday off, though I still suggest slipping in 15 minutes or so for a brain drain. When it comes to writing, few things are more important than forming, and maintaining the habit. Skip a day, and you give yourself permission to abandon your rhythm. It becomes easy to lose the second, then the third, fourth, and fifth, until the habit is memory. Months might pass without you writing a thing. You’ve probably been there. I know I have.
Poor enough concrete on your habit to make your day feel incomplete without writing. This can be a lot of work, especially at first, but the sooner you form a consistent ritual, the sooner you’ll be able to fly through your writing without stopping to think.
Innate talent is great, but the big difference between writers who are crushing it, taking leisure away from the keyboard, and spending plenty of time with their family, are those writers who practice their habit daily, regardless of whatever else is on the schedule.
You won’t become a brilliant writer overnight, but you already have the root of brilliance inside you. Nurture it day-by-day and word-by-word. Stephen King is a great writer because he sits at his desk each day and doesn’t leave until he has at least 2,500 words down. That may sound drastic, especially if you’re just getting started, but start with 500 per day word count and add a little each month. You’ll be hitting four digits in no time.
3. Ignore the Rules
I ran a flower shop for a dozen years. Each day peeling petals, arranging layers, and sorting colors. Now, I do this with words.
I was just 18 when circumstance put me in the role of head designer at the flower shop. I had no experience, but was hungry to learn, with an innate belief in my abilities. Without training, I could only move my hands according to instinct. There was a “rule book” for flower arranging, but I ignored it in favor of intuition, believing that the formal way of doing things stripped arrangements of their potential beauty. Within two years, our shop was booked solid throughout the wedding season — a first in the store’s 20-year history.
Flower design is about color and texture, not all that different from designing with words. Each of us sees the world through a different lens, created by our personal moments. Just as we all see color slightly different, so we hear the hues of language. No one can write like you do — the way you string your syllables together is your art to share with the world.
I am thankful I never had a class in flower design. I would’ve spent countless hours studying the many things I shouldn’t ever do. Instead, I discovered that there are no limits, just as I have discovered with my writing.
You have what it takes to be a better writer. It’s inside you, waiting. This might mean discarding the rules the gatekeepers handed down and listening to the quiet whisper of your instincts. You don’t need rules when you whisper to your lover, so close your eyes and forget what you think you know.
You’ll learn to carve your own rules in time. The only thing that matters is that it works for you.
4. Avoid Burnout
Burnout is a cancer to advancement — your brain’s way of telling you to slow down before it forces you to surrender. With so much to learn, abundant competition, and enough moving parts to make you feel muzzy, it’s easy to feel like the walking dead before you even get going.
Most writers feel burnout surfacing at one point or another, and I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. But I do think there are some things that have helped me and many of the writers I work with. They will probably help you, too.
- Don’t allow yourself to feel guilty. If you need to take some time away from writing because the realities of life are glaring, take it. Just don’t drop the habit altogether. If you need to hole yourself up in your cave, by all means do so, just make sure your family is supportive.
- Procrastination is normal. Of course you want to avoid procrastination, but don’t be naïve enough to believe you’ll never engage in it. Don’t flog yourself when it happens, just break through the wall as fast as you can.
- Put your goals first. If everyone else always comes first — clients, commenters, and your inbox — the fires of your passion may dim to embers. Don’t allow this to happen. By putting yourself first, at least occasionally, you will pull your dreams closer to you. When you can see your dreams at the edge of the horizon, it’s easier to keep running to them without feeling the crushing fatigue that surrounds dreams too distant to see.
- Have realistic expectations. Thinking you can climb Mount Everest in a few hours will leave you feeling defeated, even if you’ve already climbed thousands of feet. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small, and know that constant momentum is more significant than large, but sporadic, leaps forward.
- Get regular exercise. Too many writers ignore this and end up suffering. Your body needs rest and regular exercise, or you will get sick more often. Your productivity will suffer and so will your mood. Sitting at a desk all day is terrible for your body. Build in a few minutes for exercise each day. You don’t have to run a marathon; 15 minutes each day can help you stay strong.
If you’re running on fumes you won’t run fast, and it’s easier to fall. Approach your writing with the energy it deserves, and always remember to take care of yourself.
5. Look for Intersections
Creativity is born whenever you open your mind — when you’re at a red light and your mind wanders to an old conversation or song, or when you’re trying to drift to sleep but your mind keeps circling the characters, setting and structure in a book you’ve yet to write.
Maybe you’re like me, having spent far too much of your life believing you weren’t creative. If so, I hope you now realize now that you’re every bit as creative as everyone you know.
Creativity isn’t magic. It’s habit.
Creativity is knowing you see the world through a unique perspective, and that you can make connections no one else has ever made. Creativity is the alchemy of making something from nothing — when two ideas collide.
It happens when you’re watching a film, listening to a song, or reading a book. The whisper is there; don’t ignore it. Most of the time, it’s trying to tell you something important. Capture the dispatch, then get it to the page.
Sure, the same stories have been told over and over and over again, and you’ll probably never come up with something 100% unique. Neither will I. Art is born when life’s intersecting roads lead you toward an old story you can tell in a new way.
Read, write, love, and live. Record what you learn and waste nothing. Do it repeatedly until it is easy. Soon you will be a master.
6. Understand the 10,000 Hour Rule
We bought a Nintendo Wii for Christmas last year.
One of the included games was Wii Sports: Resort. Other than the sword fighting game, wakeboarding was my son’s favorite. Like a perfect arcade game, wakeboarding is wonderfully simple and highly addictive.
For the first few days, my son and I ran neck and neck, scoring around 300 points every time we played. Then, out of the blue, my little man found his rhythm and landed a whopping 800.
“Daddy, daddy! I got 800 points!! I got 800 points!!! See if you can get 1,000!!”
I tried, but it was hard.
I spent two days trying to hit 1,000, but couldn’t even come close. My highest scores were hovering around 500.
I kept trying.
The following evening, I managed to pass my son’s 800, peaking at 901. I jumped up and down in celebration, then slapped the reset button and tried again. No matter what I did, I was stuck. Finally, it was bedtime, so I set the controller down.
“Can you make it to 1,000, Daddy, or do you think it’s impossible?”
“Yes, when you wake up in the morning, you’ll see,” I said.
I was prepared for a long night, but the daddy and 12-year-old inside me agreed — success was non-negotiable. I turned the Wii back on and nailed 1,354 my first try.
1,600; 1,700; 1,800 — the numbers continued to climb. After a half dozen games I scored a few points shy of 3,000. I turned off the Wii and smiled.
Success is a lot like a well-designed video game. It starts out extremely hard and you think there’s seemingly no way you’ll ever be able to beat it. The levels are too confusing and the boss is too hard. But you keep on trying, learning the rhythm of the levels and looking for the chinks in the boss’s armor. Eventually, the impossible becomes simple and new high scores are as easy as showing up.
You can substitute points for profit, but there isn’t much difference. Learn the rhythm of your online levels and look for chinks in the boss’s armor. What once seemed impossible will be simple soon enough.
The 10,000 Hour Rule, which I first learned about in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, claims that it takes at least 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of anything. From Mozart to Stephen King, there are no prodigies. Do your time, and do it every day, and you will eventually make a great living as a writer (and it probably won’t take you anywhere near 10,000 hours!).
7. Delegate the Drudgery
If you’re not willing to delegate the drudgery, then you’re wasting time doing what you do best — writing. And the less you write, the further you are from realizing your dreams.
I learned this law early. When I ran my flower shop, there were many times when I was forced to do everything myself, from stripping thorns from the roses, to answering phones, to emptying the buckets, and keeping things clean. Every time I wasn’t talking to a bride, booking a big party, inking the best possible deal on our international roses, or helping a hapless dude pick out flowers for his dudette, it was costing me and the business money.
I understood this truism before switching to writing, but my many excuses kept me from implementation. First, I was too poor. I just wasn’t generating enough money to justify the expense, so I wrote keyword articles for pennies that kept me running in circles, instead of building the base I needed for the business to grow. I also had a business partner who preferred to keep everything in-house. Though we didn’t share perspective, I saw where he was coming from, and it wasn’t as though we had the revenue required to argue. Once we started growing fast, we could barely keep up. We spent more time scrambling than outsourcing.
These are flimsy excuses, and I’m only writing them here so they don’t happen to you. Delegate the drudgery. Always. If you’re not doing what you love, you’re distancing yourself from your passion and the true money you could be making.
Outsourcing travels in all directions. When you write copy for a client who doesn’t want to do it themselves, they are outsourcing their work to you. For you, writing is easy. For them, it’s difficult. Some of the things you don’t want to do, aren’t especially good at, or take you far too long, are tasks other people are exceptional at and enjoy doing — coding, WordPress work, blog design, research, and all the other stuff your business needs to grow.
Don’t spend your time building links or sweeping the floor of your blog. Let other people do that for you so you can spend your time writing more.
8. Adapt Quickly
You will make plans and they will fail.
If you’re lucky, this will happen often. Adaptation makes you stronger than the other guy. It’s not the smartest, the fastest, or the prettiest that will make their dreams come true — it’s those who know how to quickly adapt to any situation.
Successful entrepreneurs and writers understand that the world and environment around them is in constant motion. Smart writers focus on their endgame, adapt their strategies, and effectively meet the needs of an always-shifting market.
Can adapting quickly be taught? Absolutely. And sure, some people are better suited at this than others. I started selling Garbage Pail Kids and baseball cards on the playground in third grade, so I was bitten by the bug early. But even if it isn’t instinct for you, I believe you can understand the basics needed to succeed, then groom those qualities in yourself.
I’ve had to shift course more times than I can count, sometimes dodging earthquakes while weaving through tornadoes. But learning to dodge and weave has done wonders for my ability to grow. As it will for yours. Once you know you can zig when everyone else is zagging, and come out ahead at least most of the time, you should find ways to help others.
9. Help Others
You can use your growing authority to profit in many ways, but one way stands above the rest. And if you’re as awesome as I think you are, you’ve probably been doing it since preschool.
Helping people is one of the fastest ways to build your personal brand, and something you should be doing regardless of where you are or where you’re going.
When was the last time you went out of your way to help someone else when nothing was in it for you? Do you consistently put the needs of others above your own, even when it’s inconvenient? Do you help other people achieve their goals?
Do it because it’s the right thing to do, or do it to build your business faster, but do it. Read and tweet other peoples’ content, answer every email as thoroughly as you can, and do it for free unless it’s costing you money you can’t afford to lose.
There isn’t one right way to help others. Be the best possible version of YOU and keep your eyes open for ways you can help others in your niche. Don’t wait for people to ask. It can’t be a one-time thing. It must be in your blood. When you log onto Twitter, ask yourself, how can I help others? Be a leader who is willing to help and you will find more people are happy to follow.
10. Stay Focused and Finish
If you are unable to finish your passion projects, your dreams will linger on the wrong side of your horizon. One of the worst things in the world for a writer is having a hard drive packed with projects that are 80% finished.
Believe me, I’ve been there. If you find yourself straying off course (and you probably will) try any of these following suggestions:
- Stop interrupting yourself. Do yourself a favor — turn off the computer ding and disable the popup that tells you, “You’ve got mail!” Like dogs salivating to Pavlov’s bell, when you hear the ding of email, you race to check your messages, interrupting your flow and veering focus from the project in front of you. It takes eight to 20 minutes to return to your groove. If the bell never tolls, you’re more likely to stay on track and complete the task that will inch you forward.
- Spend time doing nothing for at least 10 minutes each day. Take a break, clear your mind, and you’ll be surprised how often solutions become blindingly obvious and getting new ideas is as easy as closing your eyes. It’s called inspiration — and it arrives without struggle when your mind is still and more easily able to focus on what’s important.
- Imagine the world you can create instead of getting overwhelmed by all there is to do. Picture what you hope to achieve — see yourself standing amidst all your products or happy customers. Envision how you hope to change the world. Be in that world. Know it exists. Allow yourself to truly feel it, then emerge from your state and record the three to five things you could do immediately to render your dream to reality.
The most important thing you can do to clear projects from your plate, and the area I still have the most growing to do, is to focus on a single project at a time. Do each thing well, and evolve as you go.
Everything you do aggregates to the someday total of who you are and what you stood for as a writer and a person. Most people will never be able to build such a legacy as You, the writer.
Treat your ability with respect.
Tell your story and tell it well. Your legacy belongs to you, no one else. Good times are always worth celebrating and bad times make a good story great. After all, isn’t conflict what keeps readers turning the pages?
Look forward, never give up, and ride toward the sunset undaunted.