In the last article, you’ve learned how to break your writing up into manageable chunks, organize them into an outline, and make it easy for you to get your thoughts out onto paper.
In this article I want to give you some additional writing principles that have worked for me.
I’ll discuss four key principles:
- Keep your writing concise.
- Talk about them, not you.
- Add open loops.
- Edit ruthlessly.
(For a quick summary of the entire writing process, go here.)
Keep Your Reader Interested
When you’re writing, ALWAYS keep in mind that your reader is busy and impatient.
You’re telling a story that takes them to a lesson or conclusion that’s valuable to them.
But you have to make the destination desirable enough (or the journey enjoyable enough) to convince your reader to join you and stay with you for the entire ride.
If you fail to do that, they might not start reading your work in your first place. Or leave as soon as they’re getting bored or distracted.
Don’t let that happen.
You’ll need to entice your reader to join you and stick around for the entire journey.
You do that by a combination of:
- telling them up front what the main benefits are they’ll get out of your work (and make the destination desirable).
- making your writing so enjoyable that they don’t even care about the destination (because they’re enjoying the journey).
These basic principles are the same – no matter what writing style you use.
Principle #1: Keep Your Writing Concise
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.”
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet
“Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.”
— Hunter S. Thompson
You need to keep your writing concise. The biggest problem most new writers make is that they’re using too many words to make their point.
There used to be a time where that wasn’t a problem.
Up until several hundred years ago, written content was scarce.
It was expensive to write.
Pen and paper was costly. Many people were illiterate. And before the invention of the printing press, books were copied by hand, which was really time-intensive.
All this meant that there just weren’t that many books around. And the ones that were available were expensive.
If you loved reading a few thousand years ago, you were out of luck.
There were maybe a few hundred books in existence. You’d probably only get access to a few dozen books in your entire lifetime.
So instead of reading new books, you just kept on rereading the same old books over and over again, going deeper every time.
Writers knew this.
Back then, it made sense to write as much as possible, so people could enjoy it as long as possible.
Writers didn’t have to be efficient or concise. They could write as much as they wanted and their readers would appreciate them for it.
Back then, readers were patient and a captive audience. They didn’t have much choice.
Unfortunately, those days are long gone.
Your Reader’s Attention Is Limited
Technological advancements like the printing press, computers and the internet have enabled people to create and distribute content at an ever increasing pace.
Nowadays, anybody can create and distribute content to the world. And many people do.
There is an incredible amount of content out there for your readers to consume right this second – books, magazines and blog posts.
And a staggering amount of new content gets published every year.
Your readers can’t keep up with it.
Plus, the work you write isn’t just competing with other written work. It’s also competing for the attention of your reader with TV-shows, computer games, movies, music, and a wide variety of other content.
All of it is right there at their fingertips, available at a moment’s notice.
Your reader is more likely than not starved for time and attention. He wants to read so much, do so much, absorb so much…
…and only has so little time.
Your reader’s attention is limited, and in high demand.
Your reader simply doesn’t have the time to spend hours absorbing and dissecting the meaning and nuance of every sentence you write.
They have more to read. More content to consume.
You most likely have a ton of different things you could do right now instead of reading this article. You probably have hundreds of books you’d still like to read, movies you’d like to watch, podcasts you’d like to listen to or computer games you’d like to play.
You could get access to any book, newspaper, blog post, movie, TV-show, podcast or computer game you want within minutes – using just your internet connection.
On top of that, you could work, study, hang out with friends, or go out and do something entirely different altogether.
That’s the situation your reader is in as well.
They have unlimited choices in what to do or consume right this second.
But right now, this very second, for some magical reason, they chose to read what YOU have written.
This is your shot!
Right now, you have a chance to reach and influence them.
And you might not get another one.
Take advantage of that opportunity. And treat it with respect.
Get to the point.
And move your message forward.
The clearer you make your path and the simpler you make your copy to read, the more valuable your reader will find it.
And the more they will respect you for it.
Be As Concise As You Can Be, But As Lengthy As You Need To Be
The amount of content you’ll compete with for your reader’s attention will only continue to increase.
So honing your skills to deliver a message in a clear and compelling way is a life skill that will be valuable to you for the rest of your life.
This doesn’t mean you have to rush through what you want to say.
If the journey you guide your reader through is clear and valuable enough, you can add to the length. Your reader will enjoy your journey all the more for it – and keep going deeper into what you have to offer them.
But don’t go off into non-essential tangents.
Never make your reader think: “Should I keep on reading this, or should I go do something else?”.
Respect their time and attention.
Your reader will love you for it.
Principle #2: Talk About Your Reader, Not Yourself
You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you.”
“The average person is more interested in their own name than in all the other names in the world put together.”
— Dale Carnegie
Always keep in mind that you’re writing for your reader and not for yourself.
Your message should be about them. Not about yourself.
It’s THEIR journey. Not yours.
The truth is: you’re not as interesting or funny as you think you are. Your personal anecdotes and funny jokes might actually be boring to your reader.
They’re not as important to the reader as you imagine.
You might THINK they are. Your mind will sure as hell try and convince you that you are interesting. But realize that you are heavily biased.
What seems interesting and funny backstory to you can actually be unnecessary distractions to your reader.
Every time you detract from the main message you’re trying to get across, you’re disrespecting your reader.
You’re treating their time and attention as a cheap, unlimited resource – which it’s NOT.
Think of your situation right now.
You’re reading this, but you probably have a ton of other things you could do instead.
So for as long as you’re reading this, I need to treat you with respect.
You’re interested in the points I’m trying to get across – not my life story, my funny jokes, or my attention-seeking detours.
Your readers are the same way.
They’re busy – just like you are. They don’t have unlimited time to read. They’re starved for time and attention.
Your reader has a million things around them screaming for their attention. There’s a million other things they could be doing right this second.
But for some reason, your reader has granted you a small amount of their limited attention. Treat it with respect – before you lose it!
Make sure that the destination and checkpoints you’re taking them to see are interesting and enjoyable to them (and not just you). The surest way to bore them or scare them away is by forcing them to visit places they don’t want to visit.
Don’t get me wrong – personal anecdotes, stories and funny jokes can be great.
It’s what people relate to.
But only include them if they relate to your point!
Only introduce points that moves the message forward. Only talk about things that really matter, or that deepen the understanding of what you’re trying to get across.
Keep it about them.
Your reader will appreciate and respect you for it.
If you don’t, you’ll lose your reader’s attention eventually. And when you lose it, you’ll often lose it for good.
They won’t come back for more.
Principle #3: Add Open Loops
Once you’ve finished your first draft, you can add some things to make it even better.
One thing you can add are open loops.
Your reader likes to know what’s happening. They want to know where you’re taking them and what’s about to come.
They especially like it if you only allude to it at first.
By hinting what’s coming up ahead, you build some anticipation and make the journey more exciting for them.
Open loops help keep your reader’s attention when they’re about to lose interest. It persuades them to stick around for the journey and keep on reading.
Don’t go overboard on this. Keep it light and casual.
When you’re adding open loops, only briefly mention what’s about to come. Make sure you don’t mess up the order of what you’re talking about. Don’t jump ahead and jump back, skipping all over your journey.
Just follow your roadmap. Casually mention what’s still to come. Mention the beautiful checkpoints you’ll take them to see later. Mention it casually to pique their interest.
Done well, this will make them enjoy the journey all the more.
Principle #4: Edit Ruthlessly
When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
—Stephen King, WD
“I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor.”
You won’t get it right the first time.
In fact, your first draft will probably be horrible.
You’ll be surprised how bad the first drafts of many famous pieces of literature were. Many great writers actually admit that they’re pretty bad at writing. But they’re great editors. It’s the editing that makes their work shine.
Don’t get discouraged if you’re not a great writer or think your first draft is bad. You can revise and edit your writing until it’s crystal clear.
Editing is where the magic happens.
At first, your goal is just to get all your thoughts out onto paper. Empty your mind. Get it all out.
Don’t worry about the quality of what you’re writing just yet. Don’t compare your crappy first draft to someone else’s finely polished final version.
You can make many errors and silly mistakes. It doesn’t have to be in the right place yet. You’ll fix it later when you start editing.
Just make sure you’re writing it all down first.
Once you’ve got it all written down, it’s time to go to work.
Edit. Edit. Edit.
Editing mainly comes down to clarifying the journey and making it more concise. This is where you prune the thought sequence and make sure it’s as smooth as possible.
Usually, you’ll go through multiple rounds of edits, refining your message every time. You can easily spend more time editing your message than writing the first draft.
When editing, move the points you make around until they’re in the right sequence.
For each point you make ask yourself:
“Does this move the story forward? Does this contribute to the points I’m making?”
If not – scratch it. Be ruthless.
Cut stuff that doesn’t contribute.
Drop the bullshit.
Revise your message
Edit it down.
Edit it down.
Edit it down.
Cut. Abandon. Kill.
Distill it to its essence.
And you’ll end up with a text that reads like poetry.
These four principles form the backbone of my writing style and have helped me a lot to become a better writer.
I hope these principles will be useful to you as well. I hope they help you write more, better and with more ease than before.
Ultimately, the only way to learn how to write is by writing. You can’t get there any other way.
It might be hard at first.
But you’ll get better at it eventually.
Let me assure you that yes, you CAN learn how to write, even if you’ve never done it before.
And in my opinion, it’s worth your while to learn how to do it. Writing and communication are valuable life skills that will benefit you for the rest of your life.
So if you’re interested in it… if you’d like to develop this skill… or if you have a message you want to get across…
… then just start writing.
In the next blog post, I’ll summarize this entire writing process, and give you a quick cheatsheet you can use to when you write.
P.S.: Just like last time, here’s the outline I used for myself to write this article.