On Writing – What Did I Learn?
Back when I was still in school, I was making $100 a month by ghostwriting articles for $2. While it didn’t buy me a home, it was a lot for a 15-year-old living in Eastern Europe. Years later my design writing was paying the bills.
It’s interesting to see how much I’ve learned in the process. Every so often I read some of those articles and I can’t believe how embarrassing they are – and that’s great! If you think the work you did five years ago is embarrassing, it’s a sign that you’re growing and learning. So what did I learn until now?
1. Use plain English
If I can say something with two sentences instead of three, I will. If I can express an idea in 12 words, instead of 23, I will. I try to keep it short and simple because I believe simplicity in writing is a forgotten art.
Writing like that is not lazy. Simplifying ideas to their core is difficult and time-consuming. It takes quality editing, rephrasing, and a lot of patience, experience, and skill.
Hemingway helps me when I write. I never hit publish before cross-checking. I don’t even send an email without it. For everything I write, I keep the Readability Grade under 7, so it can be read by someone with limited education. Just like we need to be better at making design more accessible, so must we make our writing.
If writing clear and concisely doesn’t come natural to you, know that it doesn’t come natural to most of us. Start with this course to understand why and how.
2. Get to the point
Many writers take their time to introduce an idea. When you learn by watching, you think this is the right way to do it. When I read, I tend to skip the intro and just get to the point. A wild guess is that I’m not the only one.
Unless I am writing something that needs a long wind-up (almost never), I introduce the main point in three paragraphs or less.
3. Throw away the unnecessary
Do you ever read something and wonder when the punchline is coming? Suspense is great for crime thrillers; for non-fiction, it’s just an annoying practice.
Learn to kill your darlings. Get rid of everything that is not crucial. Be ruthless about it – delete every word that doesn’t make your idea stronger.
4. Fix your process
Your whole world changes when you realise writing doesn’t have to be done in a single go. I struggled with this for years, only recently understanding that it is a three-step process:
You want to open a text editor and just write. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense, if you write ideas in the right order, or if the words used are the right ones.
This is not the time to edit, think about the flow, or correct spelling mistakes. This is about writing stuff down. Just like in brainstorming, everything is allowed here. It’s the divergent part of writing — the brain dump. No time for Oxford commas and British spelling.
Now you have to to make it all flow – throw away what doesn’t work, check with Hemingway, rephrase sentences, and review spelling and punctuation.
Each sentence should flow into the next one. This is making poetry — the tricky part of editing. It’s what separates good writing from remarkable writing.
I always wait a few days before I publish. It clears out my brain and it gives me time to come up with ideas of how to improve the article. Sometimes I lie in bed, reading or getting ready to sleep, when an idea for how to improve an article pops into my head. Out of the blue. You've got to love the subconscious mind.
5. Get rid of fluff
One way to see if a writer is a beginner is to look for redundancies. They are allowed in the brain dump, but shouldn’t make it past editing. Don't use words that could either be removed or replaced with something better.
Some of my favourites are ‘very’, ‘pretty’, and ‘quite’. They make sense sometimes, but more often than not they show that the editing process failed. Your sentence will usually be stronger if you remove these words.
‘Things’ is another favourite of mine. I’ve recently seen that I was overusing it because I couldn’t come up with a better word for what I was trying to say. It’s lazy and it weakens your writing.
6. No GIFs allowed
GIFs are great; they are yuge, as a contemporary political leader might say. They’re great on Twitter and WhatsApp.
I have a short attention span, so they’ve always been a distraction when reading. I can’t focus on reading when something is moving on the page. GIFs are distracting and don’t add value to your writing. If anything, use photos to spice up your content. GIFs are like a needy girl with a crush on you – keeps asking for attention when you’d rather swipe away on Tinder.
I am fascinated by how short and simple yet how powerful Seth Godin’s writing is. He talks about how it has improved over the years. Anyone can write like him, but improving your writing takes time. I can’t wait to see how much I will laugh at this article five years from now. Today I hope it makes a difference for someone out there. Let’s hope that someone is you.