This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.
Do you have any tips for people who aspire to write well?
As many of long-time readers know, I’ve been blogging for over four years. Before that, I wrote a few unpublished novels that are sitting and collecting dust in a drawer somewhere. I’ve tried different styles of writing, different topics, different formats. Here are the two most important things I’ve learned about writing over the years:
Successful writing gets your point across to your reader
This, above all else, is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned about writing. It seems obvious, but it was actually a revelation for me. You see, for years I had assumed that writing was all about me — how I wanted to come across, how I wanted to express my voice, how I could leave my unique and personal mark on the world. A great example of this was my college essay, which I happened upon not too long ago while doing some cleaning. I’m shocked I got into college at all because this essay was truly cringe-worthy. It was immediately apparent that I was trying to make myself sound smarter by swapping every sixth word with a thesaurus synonym that was longer and more impressive-sounding. That’s how I arrived at sentences like: “There exists in my life a somewhat lengthy list of haphazard things that cannot escape my notice in any normal given situation.”
Seriously, WTF is that sentence? It reeks of trying too hard. It’s twisted up to be longer and more confusing so it would make me seem more unique and intelligent and adult. Alas, it does the opposite. If I was thinking about the reader at all, I would have realized this sentence made it harder for them to understand my point. Which was, very simply, “There are a few random things I always happen to notice when I’m going about my day-to-day.”
Write for your reader. Know what you want to say and what you hope they take away. In those precious moments that they have given to you and your words, write so they might learn or feel something. Write so that it’s easy for them to remember your message in the days and weeks to come.
Hone your craft through writing goals based on quantity, not quality
Writing is like design, or any other craft. It requires practice. In the beginning, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the basics — word choice, sentence structure, making a paragraph flow in a way that didn’t sound silted. It was frustrating but necessary in my path to becoming a better writer. As I improved, the mechanics of writing occupied less and less of my time, and I could spend more thought on the crafting of the message.
There is no shortcut to better writing, just as there is no shortcut to better design, or any other craft. You must simply do, and then it gets easier. The thing that has helped me the most is setting writing goals based on volume. In my first year of blogging, my goal was to post something every week. It could be short or long, good or shitty, but I just had to hit the “publish” button once every Tuesday. I realized that if I goaled on quality — “I should only publish posts that I feel are great” — then what ended up happening was that I’d rarely publish anything (because most of the stuff I wrote early on wasn’t great), which meant I became less and less motivated to write. Whereas the quantitive goals — 500 words a day, a blog post a week, a journal entry a month, a long post on Facebook every two weeks, etc. — were all about the doing, which meant they were achievable.
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