When I first started writing, it didn’t come naturally to me at all.
More times than I care to admit…
I’ve spent hours grinding out half a page of garbage only to trash it in frustration.
I’ve stared at the evil blinking line for an eternity, with a sense of impending doom building in my gut.
I’ve procrastinated until the last minute and forced myself to stay up and write all night, with bloodshot eyes and shaking hands.
I wish I could say that’s no longer true. That now, with a few years of experience under my belt, I sit down at my computer and effortlessly slap out page after page of brilliant and awe-inspiring word magic.
But alas. Writing is hard. It’s messy. It’s painful. It’s raw. I typically plod and sputter along, swatting mental cobwebs and pushing back the noise of 1,000 chattering monkeys in my head in hopes of ending up with something worthy of another’s eyes.
Admittedly, I have a much easier time getting going than I used to. And if I can fight of the mental fog and stay awake long enough I usually end up with something that doesn’t make me gag.
Now, I’m no bestselling author (or author at all for that matter), but I have learned quite a few powerful tricks along the way that I’m happy to share with you today.
I do my best writing from 9pm-12am and 9am-12pm.
No clue. But I’ve tested extensively and found that I am considerably more focused and entertaining at those times. The other 18 hours of the day I may be a total boring douche, but from 9-12 I really shine! (Remember that if we ever hang out.)
I suggest you experiment with writing at different times over the course of a month. Take note of how smoothly the process goes, how easily you are distracted, and how long it takes you to get back on track if you drift off.
Note: I have tried in vain to change my peak hours to more of a traditional daytime routine, as I tend to wake up early even when I stay up late writing. I’ve yet to find an effective way altering this internal clock though.
Ironically, I just jumped up out of my chair and chased a GIANT fly around my kitchen with a notepad (didn’t get him). The bastard has been buzzing around the light above my head for at least an hour.
While half of my brain is trying to wow you with some gospel of the written word, the other half is tracking the fly, just waiting for him to go full on kamikaze into my cup of yerba mate.
Distracted? Indeed. But that’s not keeping me from writing.
Sometimes I can write at my kitchen table with my kids throwing paper towel tubes at my head. No problem.
Other times a pesky fly might be all it takes to push me over the edge.
There are times when I truly need complete silence and stillness to get anything of value out, and there are times when I throw on my headphones and write for an hour while blaring The Glitch Mob (My favorite? A Dream Within a Dream) on repeat.
Be willing to experiment to find out what works for you, and don’t get too set in your ways. If you hit a wall, change it up. Go do the opposite of what you’re doing. Get up and do some push-ups, cut the lights off and write in darkness, or, if all else fails, open the door and let a few flies in.
Trying to write when you don’t have anything meaningful to say is a miserable experience. It forces you to ramble on and produce empty content which might sound good, but doesn’t deliver value.
There is far too much of this type of writing in the world today, and it will only become more prevalent with the growth of websites whose only aim is to get you to keep on clicking.
TIP: If you Don’t have something to say, DO more interesting things.
– Read your ass off (real books, not just blogs and magazines) on a variety of subjects. Take notes and share what you learn.
– Go out and have some cool experiences. Go rock climbing, or scuba diving, or learn how to cook, or go for a walk and look at people.
… Or, if all of that’s too hard, go get drunk at a bar, lose your clothes, and walk home in a tablecloth (you know who you are.)
Bottom line? If you wan’t to be a good writer get out there and be a part of the world. You’ve got to submerse yourself in life, in all of it’s good and bad, to glean any worthwhile perspective and wisdom.
How will you know if you have something to say if you can’t hear your own thoughts?
Far from being some woo-woo mysticism, meditation is the most effective tool I’ve found (other than Xanax) to quiet the mind and clear the mental cobwebs. It’s far too deep of a rabbit hole for me to delve into here, but if you’re not already doing it then give it a shot and let me know how it works for you.
***Disclaimer: I’ve never had anyone come back to me and say “You know man, I tried meditating and it made my life way worse. You’re a fucking jerk for suggesting such a ridiculous thing to me.” …..But you could be the first.
Here’s a great little guide to get you started.
I suggest journaling to anyone wishing to be a better writer because, like meditation, it helps remove excess thought from the mind. It has massive upside and it’s seriously easy. For 3-5 minutes, first thing in the morning, sit down with a pen and paper and write whatever pops in your head.
Fears, anxieties, hopes, dreams, goals, a recap of the dream you just had about rolling down the highway in a tanker truck full of green jell-o. Whatever. Just write it down.
It sounds crazy, but even if you don’t have anything to say just sit there and write ” I have nothing to say, I have nothing to say, I have nothing to say” until your time is up.
For an extra boost write 3 things you are grateful for at the end of this exercise every morning.
Instead of infinitesimal, say tiny. Say end instead of terminus. Hard instead of adamantine.
I like big, fancy words just as much as the next guy, but please use them in moderation.
Overdoing it may make you sound like a pompous ass, and no one like to read what pompous asses write.
If you do your own editing make sure you do it at a separate time than you do your writing. Even if it’s immediately after, it’s important to have the distinction between the two.
We use different parts of our brains to edit than we do to write, and if you’re switching back and fourth constantly you will not only write worse than you otherwise would, but you will tire out much faster as well.
A little backtracking is fine, and necessary at times, but always try to avoid going back more than a few sentences until you’ve finished the entire writing session.
There is a fine line between too much and too little. The last thing any writer wants is for their content to be boring and lifeless, but if we go to the other extreme our message can get lost in a sea of needless narrative.
It’s a drag to have to cut a metaphor that you think is particularly clever, or delete an informative paragraph that took you 20 minutes to write because it didn’t fit in with the flow of the page, but having the willingness to let go of parts of your writing is essential for success.
When you’re editing your work be sure to be on the lookout for repetition, where you repeat the same thing over and over again. Or where you say the same thing in a different way that you’ve already said. Whatever you do, say something once and then move on, because if you repeat yourself or write the same thing that you’ve already written when you wrote it before then your readers will lose interest…..
Giant blocks of text are for books, not the web. Keep your paragraphs short, 1-4 sentences max. This keeps the reader from getting overwhelmed and leaving your page. Use images, block quotes, headers, and lines to break up the text and make your writing more skimmable. Often times people will skim through the headers of a post to see if they want to read it or not. Big paragraphs like this one look scary and time-consuming to read. People are busy enough as it is, and will skip over articles that look too labor-intensive, even if they love your content. This is especially true on mobile devices where even a modest paragraph will fill the whole screen.
^See? Even though it’s only 8 sentences that chunk of text looks shitty on a mobile screen.
Bulleted or numbered lists are a great way to hold your readers attention and relay step-by-step instructions to them.
For example you might say…
1) Read my blog.
2) Tell me how awesome I am in the comments.
3) Bust out your credit card and send me lots of dough.
While this marketing strategy might need some work, your reader would definitely understand what you’re trying to say.
Like anything good, use them in moderation. Too many lists will make your article look like a Table of Contents.
This helps make your posts skimmable and draws your reader’s attention to your main points. The written word is different from the spoken word, and proper emphasis is often essential in getting your point across. It may even determine whether people get your jokes or roll their eyes and hit the back button.
Draw attention to key phrases by bolding them.
Italics put emphasis on certain words.
Don’t overdo it though. If you try to draw attention to everything, you’ll end up drawing attention to nothing.
“Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
That’s some damn good advice Mr. Twain.
Words like very, much, and otherwise suck the life out of your sentences and detract from your message.
“It is very important to basically resist the urge to use fluffy words because they are mostly pointless and can be a little distracting to otherwise interested readers.”
Does that sentence make you want to slap me?
Good! You’re on the right track then.
To make the process easier, break it into 3 tasks.
Read your content out load as you edit. Cut back, shorten, correct, and for God’s sake delete anything that makes you go WTF?
You wrote it. If it doesn’t make sense to you then it sure as hell won’t make sense to anyone else.
**Tip: If you struggle with editing your own work send it to a friend and ask them to do it. Don’t have any friends that can read? Consider hiring a freelance editor on a site like Odesk or Fiverr. Having someone competent review your writing a few times will show you what to look out for, as well as give you an idea of how others will receive your work.
Nothing is fatal, final, or forever. I look back at some of my past writings and cringe. Hell, I might look back at this article a few years down the road and think, “God, what a dumb-ass.”
But that’s ok! We learn as we go and the only way to become a better writer is to write and write often. It has been said before and I wholeheartedly agree, an essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail.
There will be people who think you suck. There will be annoying grammar-trolls who bash you for minuscule mistakes that no one but your high school English teacher cares about. There will be articles that you go back and take down or re-write.
It’s all part of the creative process.
The point is, you can always go back and change something if it doesn’t work out. Nearly every article I write get revised at least 10 times.
Winners are those who are willing to push the envelope. Sometimes you just have to click Publish and let the chips fall where they may.
Remember to have fun with it!
I believe that writing with passion, from the heart, is the easiest way to be successful. People these days have excellent bullshit detectors, and when they can tell that you’re genuine and mean what you say they’ll gladly overlook a few run-on sentences or grammatical errors.
The best any of us can do is to continue to hone our craft, and try to become better versions of ourselves every day.
Now this post is obviously not the be-all and end-all of effective writing, but taking action on the steps above will undoubtedly help you produce content that your readers will love for years to come. For additional resources stay-tuned, this is the first post in a how-to series on content creation, and we’ll be coming out with a lot more articles like this in the near future.
P.S. In case you were wondering, I never got the fly. It moved to another part of the house and lives to fight another day.
Do you have one or two killer tips for effective writing?
Please share them with us in the comments section below!