In recent months, several colleagues have approached me asking for help to become better writers. Why do they think I’m qualified? Aside from writing dozens of papers, scripts, sales sheets, articles, ads and brochures for my employers, I also cannot resist editing whatever is put in front of me. It’s my catnip – and they know it.
Since I am fascinated by the act and art of writing (and inclined to share some hard-won knowledge), I’m responding by writing a blog post about writing blog posts for would-be blog writers. Very meta.
I’ve just completed 16 posts in my first four months at my new job, so let’s just say the topic is fresh in my head. While there are entire books on the subject, I’m going to keep it simple and cover four areas: topics, flow, mechanics, and polish.
Sensing a Topic
This one is both easy and hard to explain. I recently heard the author Pam Houston speak, and she described her writing as driven by small moments of resonating clarity (my words). These could be triggered by the sight of a bird in a meadow, the perfume of a spring blossom, or an odd expression on the face of a sales clerk. Her computer desktop is crowded with these mental notes, which she injects into her writing as appropriate.
Remarkably, I feel the same mental buzz when a topic is ripe for the writing. The sensation comes from a blend of knowing the topic, finding it fascinating, and acknowledging that I could commit an hour or two to sussing it out. I would wager that most writers probably feel the same burst of confidence, excitement and persistence that I do.
I recommend cultivating that radar ping of recognition. Look for it when you finish a project, give a talk, go somewhere new or meet a fascinating person. Is this something worth explaining? Would YOU want to read about it yourself? What value can you provide for the reader’s time?
If you’re still sensing the thrill of the idea, it’s likely a winner. Capture it ASAP and store it in a place where you can find it. Bring it out when you’re ready to write and then think about the flow of the piece.
Dictating the Flow
Flow is important. Awkward segues will lose your readers. Some recommendations:
- Create an outline. If not on paper, then at least in your mind palace. Know where you’re starting and where you want to go. Then fill in the details.
- Begin with a memorable opening. Capture their attention ASAP and let them know why they need to read straight through to the end. You can also reveal the path you’re about to take them on so they get a glimpse of the journey (check out the third paragraph from the top).
- Start at a high level and dig down. I like the inverted pyramid favored by journalists, and even if you’re not partial to it, it can help you with your flow / structure.
- Finish with a flourish. At the end, provide a good summary of what you want readers to remember. Or like a good comedian, you can end with a surprise reference. If you’re writing for work, always add a call to action (CTA) to continue engaging the reader.
Earn an A+ on Mechanics
Just like in school, mechanics are critical. Some tips:
- Spelling counts. Read everything you write two more times. And if you’re not sure of the spelling (e.g., straight-forward vs. straightforward) or meaning (e.g., continuous vs. continual), just type your word in Google to get a proper answer.
- People read with their eyes. So use section headers like I do in this blog. Bold sentences you care about. Use italics for emphasis. NEVER use underlines for emphasis because people will think that the words are linked.
- Add a graphic when it makes sense. There are plenty of sites with Creative Commons or royalty free images you can use. I love Pexels and Unsplash. The image of the writer at the top is free from Wikipedia Commons.
- Keep it short.
Add the Polish at the End
Now that you’ve scraped away at your first draft, it’s time to add the polish. Like the dental hygienist does, but less minty.
Most professional writers have an editor (or, in my case, a wife who happens to be an editor), but if you don’t have a sounding board, it’s not a huge deal. I recommend putting the post aside for a day or two and coming back in fresh. You can review your work more objectively when you’re past the initial passion.
I review the language and remove repeated words, unneeded clauses, and stale adjectives that take up space and add no extra value. Sometimes I even take out whole sentences. I always find mistakes, especially if I’ve been extra sloppy with cut and paste. I add any necessary keywords I want Google or readers to see. Then, at the end, I create the best title I can think of.
Perfection only leads to insanity
Well, that may not be true, but let’s acknowledge that a post will never be perfect. However, it can easily be funny, informative, and on deadline. Those are what really count.
Just promise me you won’t give up after the first try and that you’ll strive to improve with each post you publish. Take chances, be memorable, and be meta if you have to.