Great writing is magic, but there is no magic to being a better writer. It is an exercise in time and suffering. The more time you spend writing, the more your writing skills will improve. No writing tips can eliminate the pain.
To begin, begin. “I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it,” writes novelist, activist and teacher Anne Lamott in her excellent guide “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” The book is named after the writing advice Lamott’s novelist father gave to her brother when he waited until the last minute to complete a big school report on birds: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Showing up is the hard part. Even great writers have to push themselves to grapple with the blank screen every day. But once you sit down and start, progress can be made. It gets easier every time you write; you just have to write frequently to make progress.
Believe me, I understand this is easier said than done. I sometimes will organize my office and do less pressing administrative tasks to avoid an urgent deadline assignment. I’m not alone in this. Most people struggle with finding the time to write, or worse, underestimate how much time it will take to complete an assignment well.
That said, I do get it done. I’ve been writing professionally for more than two decades. I can say from experience that writing and communication skills are learned best by doing. I can also say there are ways to make starting simpler: For instance, breaking a project into digestible chunks is an excellent way to approach any writing assignment, whether it’s a blog post, a white paper or a bestseller.
Beyond writing more, you can improve your prose, often significantly, with three simple tips.
Timebox Your Writing Assignments
I like to write first thing in the morning after a run. Many writers I know work best late at night. It doesn’t matter if you are an early bird or night owl as long as you set aside distraction-free writing time, ideally during your personal golden hours.
We live in a multitasking world, but good writing is not one of those things that can be done half-assed.
The best way I’ve found to make space for writing (and thus give myself a better shot at good writing) is to block out time on my Google Calendar. Productivity gurus call it timeboxing.
How long you can timebox writing tasks in one go depends on the writer. Remember that it takes some time to warm up. Setting aside 90 minutes on your calendar doesn’t mean you’ll be cranking the entire time.
You should, however, be able to make progress. Seek to set aside enough time to allow for this progress, while also recognizing the realities of your schedule. (Say, if it’s a day when you have multiple meetings and you’re taking your child to the doctor, an eight-hour writing block may be unrealistic.)
If you’re on deadline, that’s another story that we will address shortly. But blocking out time consistently to write will enhance your writing ability. You don’t have to write every day, but it sure helps.
Finding enough time to write is the biggest excuse writers give editors when they miss deadlines. And sure, content marketing workloads can be challenging. Most of us are using our limited resources to the max.
However, I argue that the difficulty in writing is more of a time management problem than one with words. Writer’s block is a myth. This next tactic will help you overcome this imagined self-harm.
Outline Before You Write
I went to a Catholic elementary school, where I had to diagram sentences and use Roman numerals to outline my compositions. The experience and the nuns made me hate outlining for years. I rediscovered the power of outlining as I matured as a writer.
To do meaningful, ambitious work, you will need to go deep and long. That requires a roadmap.
At Rep Cap, we outline all of our blog posts and white papers before we write. It gives us clarity on how to execute our assignments and helps us identify if anything is missing. A good outline is a surefire way to move around an imaginary writer’s block.
With outlining, it’s easy to get hung up on the format, as I did in parochial school. Keep it simple. You can use numbers or bullet points.
The main thing with outlining is that you define your objective, or thesis, for the piece and organize your thoughts around it. Then list your main points, followed by your supporting evidence.
Generally, I like three to five supporting statements for each theme. But these are guidelines, not commandments. Outlining is here to help, not hurt.
Indeed, it can be incredibly helpful in improving your writing process. An outline gives you guideposts to blaze a trail to make your points. It’s much easier to revise an outline than an article or white paper, especially if you and your team or clients aren’t aligned on the story’s goals.
Without an outline, you may struggle and struggle and finally create what appears to be a superb final product … only to discover you totally missed the point of the task and need to start over from scratch.
I like to think that an outline is to writing as a wireframe is to web development. You can build a website without a wireframe, but the process will take much longer. It’s the same thing with writing. The time you save by outlining your stories and other content assets can be better spent on more writing.
Read Widely to Improve Your Writing
The less I read, the more my writing sucks. Whenever I’m feeling uninspired, I realize that I need to read more.
Beyond Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” plenty of great books can improve your storytelling skills. Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” is a personal favorite. I also enjoy “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Bundell and Robert McKee’s “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting,” which can help you turn up the drama and pathos in your writing.
I could list more books, but I urge you to explore on your own and find ones that connect with you personally as a writer.
For example, I’m a Michael Lewis fanboy. I thought his latest book about the U.S. response to the pandemic would be boring, but I couldn’t put it down. I was amazed he could create a compelling narrative in the middle of a crisis without knowing how it will end. The experience motivated me to do better as a reporter and writer.
Will you have the same response to his work? I’d like to think so (Michael Lewis probably would, too), but you might not. This is fine, because there are plenty of other books out there that will suit you specifically.
You can do other things to improve your writing, but for basics nothing beats writing more, managing your time better, outlining when you get stuck and reading what inspires you.
If you currently feel so overwhelmed you initially can only do one thing, I suggest writing more. Because even bad writing beats blank pages.