How To Write Better

Everybody has to write.  But many (if not most) people dread the process.

Even professional writers struggle.  Many of them say, “I don’t like to write – but I love to have written.”

Why is writing so hard for so many people?

Most of us learned how to write in school.  Our teachers gave us good grades for good writing, and poor grades for poor writing.  The idea was that poor grades would motivate us to write better.

Thinking writerRemember the dreaded 100-word essay?  We might have only had 60 words to say, but we were graded on length.  So we added 40 words of fluff.  We learned that longer writing was better than shorter writing.

We turned in papers that were our best effort at writing.  They were returned with red marks highlighting everything we did wrong and few comments about what we did right.  To get a better grade, we had to strive for perfection.

There was no learning curve.  There was no place for bad writing.

So we developed a mindset that said, “Only good writing has value.”

And that’s exactly why writing has become tedious and painful for so many people.  They dread the process, so they procrastinate – and constantly feel the silent eyes of their teacher saying, “It’s not good enough” while they’re putting words on a screen.  (This isn’t a critique of teachers – most of them are awesome, and we grew because they believed in us – and helped us believe in ourselves.)

It’s taken me a few decades to overcome that imprinting, but I’ve learned a few things that have made writing less painful.

  1. Know exactly what you accomplish with your writing.  Start with the outcome you want for your reader, and write with that in mind.  What should they walk away with? A clear purpose is like putting the address in your GPS system – it guides every decision.
  2. Never edit while you’re writing.  Writing is a creative activity; editing is a critical (but necessary) activity.  If you do both at the same time, you won’t do either one well.  Why? Because you come up with an idea, but your critic says, “That’s dumb.”  So you quit coming up with ideas.
  3. Write poorly – first.  James Thurber said, “Don’t get it right; get it written.”  The hardest part of writing is getting it from your head onto paper.  Once that’s done, you have something to work with – but not before.  Write rough drafts, then polish.
  4. Don’t write in a cluttered environment.  When we get stuck, it’s easy to get distracted.  Clutter gives us plenty of distractions.  I almost never write in my office, because there are too many shiny objects.  Physical clutter encourages mental clutter.
  5. Stay seated.  I never have anything to write about for the first 20 minutes.  I’ve learned to force myself to stay seated for at least that long, whether I produce any words or not.  No email, no solitaire, no reading – nothing but writing.  Usually, inspiration comes near the 20-minute mark, and I’ve built some momentum.
  6. Keep it short.  People have information overload, so you’re doing them a favor by staying concise.  People don’t usually ignore your content because it’s too short, but they will ignore it if it’s too long.
  7. Keep it simple.  Simple people try to appear profound; truly profound people strive to be simple.  Think ‘Reader’s Digest’ – the most popular magazine in the world.  They must be doing something right.

There are as many suggestions as there are writers, but those are a few that I’ve found to be valuable.

What about you, my writing friends?  Whether you’re a professional author, or you simply have to write documents at work or personal emails – what makes you more effective?  Share your ideas below so we can all learn from each other.

(Comment below – or at the link near the top.)

Senior Consultant at FranklinCovey; Speaker, Author of 5 books – including “People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys,” “I Wish He Had Come With Instructions,” and “Dealing With the Elephant in the Room.” (See Book page)

  • Greg Carlson

    Images. Visual or word inspired. “A farmer went out to sow some seed. And some fell…” “A man was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers…” “From now on, you will be fishers of men!” And not only images of your material, but keep an image of your reader in mind as you write (like #1 from above).
    My high school English teacher gave us a list of 10 things to remember when writing.
    1. Getting started is half the battle.
    2. blah blah blah
    3. listen to Dr Bechtle (and I actually DID like your points above!)
    4.- 9. yada yada yada
    10. Getting started is half the battle.

    • Yep – love it. #1 and #10 on your list are pretty big. (#3 is a no-brainer . . . ) And I have to constantly remind myself of the importance of visuals, stories, etc. It’s like listening to a long, dry sermon (not one of yours, of course), and perking up when they start a story. Thanks!

  • Caring about your reader? Now there’s a novel idea! Great input – thanks!

  • Phil Dickey

    Points 2 & 4 are the hardest for me. Especially, editing while writing. Since what I write is usually limited by space (2 page letter for publication) I tend to write a paragraph, then edit it before going on to the next paragraph. Still, it ends up too long (I tend to talk too much too), which leads to more editing. Finally, I usually have to leave out an entire thought I wanted to cover, but it usually ends up working out. So, that reminds me, I have to get to work on the next ministry letter.

    • Yeah, that’s a big one. It seems counter-intuitive to write the whole thing, and then edit the whole thing . . . but that’s probably the biggest (and hardest) lesson I’ve learned. I still fight the idea — but whenever I do it, my writing time usually is cut by about 30% overall (and the result is cleaner).

  • patrickyun

    I wish more people would follow points 6, and 7. Being concise is SO underrated. Everyone, especially high school teachers seem to think that the longer the paper, the better it is. God forbid you turn in a paper that is only 1 and a quarter pages long when you were told to write a two page paper.

    • I had an English teacher in high school who had a cloud-shaped rubber stamp that said “FLUFF.” He’d circle whole passages and stamp them in red. Maybe we should do that with the documents we receive and return them . . .