From the den of Ed Latimore
Subject: How to become a better writer
What Makes A Writer ?
A writer is someone who writes with a purpose. You may disagree, claiming that anyone who simply writes is a writer. In another realm and another discussion, I’d likely agree with you. However, for this article we will agree to disagree.
I added the modifier “with a purpose” because without a goal, it’s impossible to know if you’re improving or not. Without a target, there’s no way to know the difference between being wasteful and lucky or efficient and skilled.
My Purpose For Writing
I write to teach. My official mission of writing is “To take what I’ve learned the hard way and break it down so that you can learn it the easy way”. This drives 99.9% of my decision-making while writing.
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My secondary purpose is to spread my message as far and as wide as possible. I’ve had to learn networking, marketing, and SEO. On the rare occasion that my secondary goal and primary goal conflict, the primary goal always wins.
I’ve been blogging with a purpose for over a decade on various platforms and in various places. In blog posts alone, I’ve easily put down half a million words. I’ve published four books with two others slated to be released by the end of 2017. I’m currently freelancing as a ghost-writer. By the end of 2017 I will have written over 1 million words. This doesn’t include the fiction that may never see the light of day.
I’m not ballin’, but I am legitimately able to pay my bills from writing with a little left over. My goal is to continue improving and producing so that “little” left over will turn into “a lot” left over.
I’ve learned quite a bit about writing along the way. I’ve improved a lot, but I have quite a ways to go. There are technical elements I need to master as well as stylistic ones that I must continue growing into. Here are 10 deep insights that have made me a better writer over the past 10 years.
1. Write Every Day
Writing is a skill. Like any other skill, it requires consistent practice to improve. It doesn’t matter what you write. It doesn’t matter how much you write. If you want to become a better writer with a purpose, you need to write every day.
Aside from improving your skill, you also need to write every day to train your mind to craft words into meaningful sentences. You have to be comfortable stringing ideas together with purpose to achieve a goal. I write to teach but if my goal was to entertain or persuade, then I would need to get used to crafting sentences that accomplish those things.
2. Write About Your Life Experiences
Writing about your experiences is powerful because it forces you to deconstruct a thing and then reconstruct it from the audience’s point of view. The power of this increases exponentially when you learn to do it with a specific goal in mind. Being able to tell a story with a message is something that surprisingly few people can do.
Anyone can deliver the facts of an event and discuss how it made them feel. This requires zero empathy, understanding of people, or ability to communicate. Most fail at this because they don’t understand that people only connect with something if they can resonate with it. Your story might be cool and have all the inspiring parts, but if you can’t tell it in a way that resonates with the audience, then your writing will under perform.
3. Take A Technical Writing Class
The wonderful thing about mathematics and the sciences is that you NEED a large vocabulary to discuss things. The world is a large place with many things that behave in many different ways under many different conditions. I’d argue that one finishes a physics or chemistry degree with a more robust lexicon than an English or creative writing student.
It’s not the size of the vocabulary that matters most. It’s the efficiency and precision with which it’s used that’s important. Scientific or technical writing demands that you convey information efficiently, clearly and precisely. .
Precise language means using the exact words to describe an idea or phenomena. Precise writing is always less complex and convoluted than imprecise writing. Precise writing makes it easier to cogently express your ideas. Doing this makes it easier for you to inform, persuade or entertain.
4. Take Advice
If you put your writing out there and it’s good enough, you will get feedback. Good writing resonates with a purpose. Good writers still need to improve. As a writer, you must be open to suggestions and advice from other people. Even if they are not writers. This is because ultimately, a writer is in service to his audience.
Just because a person hasn’t written anything doesn’t mean their advice is useless. You only do the writing. They do the reading. You do the writing for them to read. This means that you need to at least consider what they’re saying. Sometimes the criticism is unique to the person. Other times it’s legitimate information that will improve the quality of your writing. You’ll have to be the judge.
5. Learn Another Language
I’ve always had a strong interest in foreign languages, but it wasn’t until I really started learning French and Spanish that I developed an appreciation for my own. When learning the romance languages, you start to appreciate subtle things you take for granted in your native language. Taking these things for granted is almost certainly degrading the quality of your writing.
Learning the distinctions that another language makes that yours considers obvious (and vice-versa) can be illuminating and make you a better communicator in your own. For example, I learned that in French and Spanish there is a sharp distinction between actions in the past which continue and those which have a definite end (past imperfect vs perfect).
We never learn it this way in English, but it’s present. Becoming aware of when to use these rules in the other languages made my writing better in English.
6. Use Twitter
Twitter forces you to express your message in 140 characters or less. If you want to be excellent at it–and I am–then you have to get better to expressing meaningful ideas in a small amount of characters.
When editing blog posts, I often take a sentence and condense it into a Twitter post. This eliminates extraneous words and improves clarity. It also provides a solid tweet and allows you to market your writing more effectively.
7. Learn The Basics of SEO
I am no expert at search engine optimization. I know just enough so that the search engines don’t work against me. I’ve learned enough to work with the system rather than against it. Take what I’m about to say on the subject with the same weight you’d give to beginner’s advice on any subject.
SEO seems to be largely about readability and categorization. It obviously gets more technical than this and changes regularly, but the meta-idea is that Google wants to provide people with easy-to-read content that solves the issue their searching about. This sounds remarkably like what writing with a purpose is designed to do. I imagine that this is not a coincidence.
Steve Pavlinaonce said, “Write for people first, search engines second.” Intellectually, this always made sense. However, it wasn’t until I start trying to drive traffic that I understood it viscerally. If you write with a purpose, it’s organized clearly (notice the use of headings in this article), and it helps many people, then you’re going to rank fine. More importantly, your writing is going to be better if you do these things.
8. Stop Making Outlines
Most of us learned to make an outline when we write. We pick a topic, list a few points we want to make in support of that topic, turn those into sentences, and build from there. At first glance, this process appears sound.
It organizes your ideas, builds a support net around them, and lays a structure on top of it to tie things together. You can produce a good article this way. The ones I’ve done with this process don’t turn out too bad.
The problem with this method is that it’s boring as hell. It makes me want to stop writing because it feels like a struggle. I haven’t written any articles on this blog with an outline (probably one of the reasons this blog has been more successful than my others). When I tried to write fiction that way, I couldn’t do it. I still have a 27 page outline of a story from 11 years ago. Over time I’ve learned to do things differently.
Now when I have an idea, I sit down and start writing. I’ve learned to enjoy the process of creating with words instead of building a structure. I’ve never regarded myself an artist, but I imagine this is how artists must feel when they create.
The structure of an outline is suffocating. My best ideas come when I’m in a zone writing. I can always go back and edit the piece later. At best, my words are guided by a theme. My fingers are inspired by an idea and I keep writing until I’ve exhausted all I’ve got to say.
9. Learn The Rules of Grammar and Punctuation
Anyone educated in the American system probably hates the Oxford comma. This assumes that they even know what the Oxford comma is. If you don’t, Google it. Or look at this funny picture that makes it clear.
Basic grammar and punctuation go a long way in helping you to achieve your purpose in writing. Even if your readers don’t have a sophisticated grasp of the language rules, they’ll know when you’ve broken them. Good grammar and punctuation will improve the quality and clarity of your writing.
10. Live and Learn From Life
Anyone can be a writer with purpose. Your age doesn’t matter but your experience does. Age and experience are strongly correlated but they are not causal. If you want to connect with an audience, you need to sound like you’ve got experience in life.
It doesn’t matter what your purpose for writing is or what genre you write in. At the end of the day, people are reading your words. You will live and die as a writer by your ability to connect with other people. Let your experience bleed through the pages.
This list will likely grow as I continue to grow. There is always something new to learn. The moment I think I’m done learning is the moment I stopped growing. After this, death follows gingerly.
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