How to Improve Your Writing Skills: Early & Often
This post wasn’t written today. You’re reading something that’s been sitting, for over a month, in a backlog of incomplete blog posts (backblog?) that I’m nurturing in private and slowly-but-surely “releasing into the wild” of potential public view. If you’re looking for a way to improve your writing skills, this approach may work for you, too.
What’s Does the Process Look Like?
Step 1) Harvest: What happens is that I start writing out ideas as they come, but as with many ideas, they start out half-baked. It doesn’t matter… the goal here is simply idea capture. I might dash out a few sentences, paste-in some URLs from the (too many) open browser tabs related to the topic I’m thinking of, or even just rattle off something into Dragon Dictation and email it to myself. While I don’t initially have the time to fully explore or express the idea, I’ve learned that it’s best to capture a quick rough draft while the thought is still fresh. Step 2) Winnow and Grind: The raw captured ideas eventually need to be processed and turned into posts. Often a few nascent posts get combined… I do, after all, repeat myself over periods of time… although lately I’m thinking I need to split up my posts into even shorter posts, but more on that below. In terms of grinding and polishing the posts for “publication,” I don’t have a staff of writers or a formal editorial calendar, but I do try to keep up my discipline of writing early and often… once per week or more. By capturing the ideas immediately and then keeping them refrigerated in Draft mode, I’m able to work of them and release them weekly… although sometimes, it’s very weakly.
So When Was This Post Written?
This post was first drafted over a month ago, after I finished delivering a Business Writing course. I was feeling that, as good as the course was, it was a perfect example of the limitations of single-event-based training. In particular, a business writing course should be a course… something that takes place over the course of 8 weeks, 8 months or 8 years… but not just 8 hours in a training room. Skills like writing are not developed in a single session. You need to be constantly writing, to improve your writing. Serendipitously (and very likely an example of the Reticular Activating System at work), just as I was drafting this post, Seth Godin blogged on the idea of writing more often, as a way to develop that ability. He covered the idea in a very compelling way — Seth Godin is like that — by comparing the idea of learning to write to the idea of learning to speak.
Um, Yeah… What Seth Said…
Here’s a shortened version of the already-succinct words of Mr. Godin:
No one ever gets talker’s block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right, until all the craziness in his life has died down. (…) The reason we don’t get talker’s block is that we’re in the habit of talking without a lot of concern for whether or not our inane blather will come back to haunt us. (…) We talk poorly and then, eventually (or sometimes), we talk smart. We get better at talking precisely because we talk. We see what works and what doesn’t, and if we’re insightful, do more of what works. (…) Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure. Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better. Do it every day. Every single day. Not a diary, not fiction, but analysis. Clear, crisp, honest writing about what you see in the world. Or want to see. Or teach (in writing). Tell us how to do something.
That last point is important: If you’re going to do this, it has to be real writing…. pithy tweets, re-tweets, pluses, diggs or FB status updates don’t count. Your writing should be S.A.I.N.T.-ly, which is to say, it should… Summarize, Analyze, Instruct Narrate, or Theorize ..about something. Here’s an even more succinct version of Godin’s post, in a quote attributed to one William Hull:
If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn how.
Yes, reading that post by Seth Godin gave me the inspiration to increase my blogging output. I thought to myself, Well, I don’t have Godin’s army of publicists and ghost writers, so yeah, maybe I’m not set up to do daily posts… but how about two or three times a week… what do you say, Dan?? The trade-off then, seems to be length of posting versus frequency of posting. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Dan-as-investigative-reporter analyzing Swiss cough drops (still an all-time fan favorite)… at the other end, you’ve got Dan’s brief, heartfelt moments. Much of Seth Godin’s blog (and many other high frequency / high traffic blogs) could be characterized as leaning towards the latter end of that spectrum. Let’s start wrapping a bow around this post, then…
One Post, One Idea
One way to increase my blog output will be to reduce the number of ideas presented in each post. The content is already there… the posts just need to be split up. This is not just about posting frequency… it’s about audience awareness and editing. It’s a (somewhat sad) reality of contemporary culture that long-form reading — especially on screens — is going the way of papyrus. At some point during the 20th century, long, meandering, undisciplined rants became socially unacceptable… personal indulgences that would only be appreciated by the more loyal and tenacious readers. Loyalty and tenacity? Nope, definitely not an increasing cultural trend. It’s also a truism that simplicity sells… but more to the point, keeping blog posts focused to an idea will allow for focus on the craft of writing itself. After all, it’s not just the process of writing things down that improves one’s writing skills… it’s really about the editing process. TO SUMMARIZE: Write more, right now. Write about real things, and really edit those writings. Like droplets of water wearing away at a rock, pretty soon it will leave a lasting impact.