Tips to be a Good Writer

Wendy Kelly
Jul 23, 2015

Bust Out Your Best Writing With These Tips

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Here's the thing. If you're writing content, you're writing copy. Advertising copy. No matter what you think you're doing, that is actually what you are doing.

Better Writer

Famous Copywriters

Some of the best wrote advertising copy. Dr. Seuss, Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, Joseph Heller, Salman Rushdie and F. Scott Fitzgerald are just a few famous writers who spent some time in the trenches writing copy.

So you're in good company. The thing you should know about advertising copy is that, though it may not be high literature, the same rules apply. 

Everybody Writes

And, as Ann Handley has said so well, "Everybody Writes". Her book by that name is a Wall Street Journal bestseller, for good reason. In this age, nearly everyone does write, and most of us need to do a fair job of it each and every day. We can always improve.

As Stephen King writes in his iconic book "On Writing," "I can't lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers."

Don't be a Bad Writer

Don't be a bad writer. Or, as countless blog articles helpfully advise: "Create Awe." Wow, that's helpful. 

I've come to the conclusion that you really can't bullet point your way to explaining good writing. I've been reading about writing for decades now, and the advice is elusive. Partly, I believe, because a good percentage of your intended audience may very well be a bit illiterate. It takes years of reading to really build up your literacy levels, and most of us just binge watch stuff on Netflix or read BuzzFeed. Most people don't (sorry but it's true) really read. 

Tips to Good Writing

In any case, I am going to try my hand at a list of things to consider if you'd like to improve your writing.

1. Don't be lazy. Sure, be conversational. But don't be lazy. Your writing should be encased in a solid (but flexible) framework that you create and control. If you randomly throw apostrophes throughout your prose as if they were screws or nails or something, your reader is going to end up feeling uneasy and not held. The scaffolding might be wobbly, it might actually fall.

2. Don't be a jerk. You're inviting your reader into this story. Be a good host. Make sure your story is comfortable and well-appointed. Make sure there is solid ground underfoot, and it's not too cluttered. Use metaphor. Be concrete. Do not use cliché and jargon. Just don't. Just please don't.

3. Don't be boring or pretentious or egotistical. You invite your reader in, sit them down in a comfortable chair, offer them something to drink as it were, and then, settled in, you tell them a story. It sure the hell better be worth their time. Be considerate. Think. Your reader can do anything they want. They can binge watch Netflix, for goodness' sakes! What makes you think they will want to read your silly post about the top 7 gluten-free crab cakes you tried in Medford last week?

4. Go For It. Your reader is sitting, comfortable, safe and secure wanting a story from you. From Lisa Richardson, "Be fearless. As in "not hedging". Not saying something and then taking it back. Not cowering behind too many adverbs and passive tense and caveats. Being willing to feel uncomfortable and exposed." Commit to the story. Tell it. Honestly, I don't care if you're writing about what you think is the most boring subject in the world. There is a story in there. It is your job to find it and tell it.

5. Get them laughing or crying. Or scare them. You want to evoke emotion in your reader. You just do. See number 3, above. If you can get over yourself a bit, great. But go further. Again, your reader can do whatever they want, but for some reason, they chose to read your stuff. Even if all they need is the details on the movies that are playing at the local theatre, write in a way that will not put them to sleep. You can do it. Not in a first draft, maybe, but you can do this.

6. Be clear. Back to numbers one and two above. You've built the framework. Make sure it's solid the whole way through. Anticipate what your reader needs to know and give that to them in a clear, focused and precise way.

Be Remarkable

If these "tips" sound difficult, it is because they are sometimes. Damien Farnsworth of Copyblogger, notes that he (and remarkable writers) write in their heads. I won't say I am in that league, but I definitely understand the idea. You need to be able to try out several ideas on the fly, imagining your reader in each scenario, flipping colour scheme, decor, furniture and the like at will, watching your imagined reader's reaction to each change.

I certainly did that for this piece. I kept imagining you, sitting there. I'd offer you the first sentence, and I'd see your face wince. I'd go make a tea, come back, change the scenery, start again. It took many iterations, but finally, in my mind's eye, you were satisfied. I hope I'm correct. I'd love to hear.

Good Versus Talented

One thing I noticed in researching this article is how many different pieces of advice there were. And none of it really contradicts. But none of it really paints a clear picture, either. It seems that we all know what good writing looks like. We know it when we see it. Which is a great start. But to go that extra step and come to a cohesive list of things you should do in order to write well...well, that is something entirely different.

Another thing I noticed is that there is a difference, a huge difference, between "good" writing and "talented" writing. Brain Pickings sums it up with a review of Samuel Delany's About Writing. "Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic." True enough - the question still remains how to get there.

Read Lots and Write Lots

The two tenets repeated over and over by every single person spouting writing advice is the same: read a lot and write a lot. Even Steve Martin, who says he never reads or writes, actually gets at the essence of this advice better than anyone. Okay, Mr. Steve Martin. True. You don't actually have to read a lot and write a lot if you have the imagination of Steve Martin. You can read by attending art shows and playing music. You can read by actively observing the world around you, reading, if you will, the scenes that happen as you traverse life. You can write in your head. If you are really good, you can rewrite in your head.

I think it all comes down to valuing your reader and wanting to please them. If you think about it, beyond basic rules, which are fairly easy to learn, it all comes down to being a good host. Your blog post (or other writing) is your party, in other words. Crack open a bottle of the good stuff and let it flow.

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