This is part six in our Copy Matters series.
I write for a living and I have a few simple tips to help you with your own writing:
1. Give It Time
Good writing takes time. Don’t think you can sit down with 20 minutes and crank out good copy. You need the time it takes to actually put words on paper, but there’s also the time required to let ideas develop. You need time to step away and get some space and the time to go over everything again. Writing copy takes a lot longer than you think it will (which is true of any creative activity). Don’t rush it.
2. Write a Lot, Use Less
When I have something new to write I just start writing. Even if all I need is a phrase, I’ll fill a page with ideas. The only way to get to the truly perfect turn of phrase is to go through a lot of bad ones. The only way you do that is by writing a lot. You won’t end up using most of it, but it’s not a waste. You had to turn out that garbage to find the good stuff.
3. Short Periods of Intense Focus
Writing is hard work. Mentally hard. I’ve found that it’s extremely difficult to sit down and write for 8 hours a day. Even before I had kids I couldn’t do that. It’s too much work for your brain and if you try it you’ll be writing junk. Instead take short blocks of time and intensely focus on your writing. Spend 25 minutes intensely writing. Don’t do anything else. Don’t let yourself be distracted by email, Twitter or the dog. Just write. When the 25 minutes are up, take a break. Justin Wise recently had a great post about this method—I realized it’s how I’ve been working for the past decade, except I wasn’t using a timer (tip: Start using a timer).
4. Write Conversationally
Bad writing tries too hard to impress. It’s full of big words and awkward phrases that nobody uses in real life. Write like people talk. Write conversationally. If you learn nothing else from this series, learn that.
5. Write Short
When it comes to writing, shorter is almost always better. Write short. Take something you wrote recently and cut it in half. Often you’ll find that it works better. Not only do people have limited patience and time, but when you cut out the extra stuff get your point across all the stronger. Twitter is excellent practice for this.
6. Short Words and Sentences
While you’re busy writing short, use short words and sentences too. It’s not just the total length of your copy that can be short, but the words and sentences. Complicated sentences suck. Nobody wants to read a sentence that drags on and on. Unless you’re a brilliant writer, you’re probably going to lose people. And don’t use fancy words. I’m all for improving vocabulary, but more often than not impressive words are a way to show off. Don’t distract people with your vocab, get to the point.
7. Show Don’t Tell
This is age old advice for fiction writers, but it applies to all writing. The best writing doesn’t just tell you what’s happening, it shows you. Good writing doesn’t tell you how God moved this past weekend, it shows you. Showing is about using stories and imagery and emotion to communicate what’s happening. Good writing isn’t just the facts, it’s full of something more. That’s what you need to grasp. Emotion. Imagery. Pictures.
8. Read it Out Loud
The best way to proof your writing is to read it out loud. When you read it in your head it’s too easy for your brain to self correct and fly right over mistakes. It’s too easy to think it sounds the way you want it to, and not realize what it actually sounds like. To figure that out, you need to hear it. Read the words out loud (close the door or turn up your music if you’re afraid of distracting your neighbors). When your tongue trips over the words, you’ve found something you need to fix.
9. Have Someone Else Read It
Once you’ve read it to yourself out loud and you think it’s perfect, have someone else read it. There’s always something you miss. I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years and I still miss things (I probably missed something in this post). It might be a silly mistake. It might also be a major goof. When someone with a different perspective reads it, the holes are obvious. This takes some humility, but in the end your writing will be better. It’s not about you, it’s about the work.
10. Read Good Copy
You want to write better? Read better. Find good examples of copy and devour them. Force yourself to pay attention to how it’s structured, what they actually describe and how it all comes together. It can be hard to read like that (I have to force myself), but you’ll start to learn things. You get better by studying the masters.