Writing Advice That Works
Put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. [Bob Dylan]
Spend any time on the internet and you’ll see a host of sites giving their opinions on how to write.
And often that’s all they are — opinions. Writing tips that become so commonplace they masquerade as the truth.
Myth versus Truth
We wanted to dig under the myths and see which writing advice actually works and which is only fiction. Which advice, unlike the personal and subjective opinions, is actually backed with evidence that proves its effectiveness?
Because changing habits is hard enough, and becomes even harder when you don’t understand why you’re doing it. Understand the psychology, however, and it becomes easier to find the motivation to change your day.
Let’s have a look at our top five…
1. Write every day
You must write every single day of your life. [Ray Bradbury]
‘Write every day’ is probably the most popular piece of writing advice you’ll hear.
And it works, although you don’t have to do it seven days a week, there are alternatives.
If you’re one of those people who’s juggling their writing alongside a business, a family and a million other commitments, then know that there are ways you can get the same benefits without committing to write every single day.
Why Every Day?
If you write every day, then writing becomes a natural habit.
It becomes natural
Just like making your morning coffee, you will do it without thinking. You go into the kitchen, you make the coffee (or ginger tea in my case!), then you sit down and write. One leads to the other.
This is no myth — it’s totally supported by the science, and you can embed a daily habit in as few as 20 days.
Sadly, not all habits form quite this quickly. Some do take up to a year before they feel automatic. And the easier you make them, the more quickly they integrate — which is why you should set lower, more achievable targets.
“Write for ten minutes a day,” will be a much easier habit to integrate than than “Write for two hours a day.”
Be reassured, though, all actions will turn into habits with enough repetition. It’s just a matter of time.
It makes you an expert
And those hours you spend will also improve your skill as a writer.
Your simple daily action turns you into an expert. Eventually at least.
It may take more than 20 days, but it’s the repetition that is important. A study in The Annual Review of Psychology, reported that
The highest levels of human performance in different domains can only be attained after around ten years of extended, daily amounts of deliberate practice activities.
By writing every day you create a habit. A habit which, over the years, will make you an expert in things that may not currently come naturally to you.
2. Write short sentences
Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts. [Harper Lee]
‘Writing short’, cutting off extraneous words on sentences, or replacing conjunctives with full stops, is the best advice for any writer who wants to strengthen their work.
We can all make our work easier to read.
We want to write short because readers are impatient.
This is true no more than ever before, as more of our reading happens online. The proliferation of portable internet means we have constant access to the world from our phones and tablets. But we don’t want to spend too long reading on them.
You lose attention
It’s not just that too many extraneous words make the reading harder.
Research shows that, if you have a slow loading website or blog, you will lose you up to 32% of your audience in the first five seconds. And that’s before they even get to your long, extraneous writing.
And they’re gone
And when you look at reading patterns, it’s likely that your readers are only reading 20% of your web content — and that the average reader will max out at 28% of any given web page. And then they’re gone.
If that 20% is just fluff and nonsense, then your reader isn’t learning anything and isn’t engaged with your content.
If you want influence, keep it short. And repeat: it’s OK to say the same things in more than one way.
3. Keep it simple
Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. [Steve Jobs]
Whoever your audience you want to ask yourself: “Is this how I talk?”
Avoiding technical or business jargon is more likely to put your audience at ease, and make them connect with you as a person. In the right circumstances.
You’re not writing a technical manual. You are writing to be understood. And don’t underestimate the power of simplicity in the most circumstances.
Using jargon has two outcomes, according to Ingrid Sapona.
You make people feel stupid
First, it makes your reader feel stupid and potentially excluded if they don’t understand what they’re reading. If you force your reader to put in extra effort they can resent this.
And they’re gone
And this leads to the second effect; if your reader doesn’t understand your work, or it’s too complex to assimilate quickly, they’ll simply go elsewhere to get their answers.
Someone just skimming — especially if they found you on the web, or they’re browsing for a book on Amazon, will switch away.
They’d rather find someone who can explain the same concepts in a simple and accessible way. (which is what you should have done in the first place.)
4. Eliminate weasel words
…about clichés. Avoid them like the plague. [Khaled Hosseini]
The art of saying something without saying anything has no place in your writing.
Clarity is everything.
And, unless you’re scripting for a politician’s answers in question time, then don’t use words to obfuscate, or create a meaning when no meaning is present.
Get rid of them in your work.
Why not weasel?
Weasel words make you sound wishy-washy; they put a qualification around everything you assert.
Say what you mean
We found your work interesting, we just don’t have space for new writers at the moment.
They hated you.
And own it
Obscuring, or reducing the impact of the real meaning, cancels your authority on a topic. Instead of owning something, you’re avoiding responsibility.
This kind of writing belongs in the domain of politicians and copywriters, not expert authors like you.
5. Show don’t tell
Show the readers everything, tell them nothing. [Ernest Hemingway]
‘Show, don’t tell’ is the mainstay of writing fiction. But it applies equally as well non-fiction writing.
In fiction, the ‘showing’ is describing the state of affairs, or emotion of the characters. We don’t need to say a man is violent — the description of him thumping his fist on the desk at work, or throwing his cup at the wall at home, show us.
Dramatising the description allows your readers to use their imagination, and to draw their own conclusion. Don’t underestimate the power of imagination.
Your non-fiction writing should be just as creative as fiction when you are finding ways to teach a lesson or illustrate a point.
There’s a good reason why books like Freakonomics are more popular than science journals.
We learn and remember better when the writing creates an experience, tells a story, and shows the message, rather than just relating the facts.
Do you do it?
This writing advice is proven. It works.
But it will only work for you, if you choose to implement it.
Are you persuaded? Is there anything you want to change? Go ahead and adapt, but, above all, do.
Are you integrating this advice into your day? What else do you do that works? Let us know on social media…