One of the best writing tips I received was from author, speaker, and podcaster Joanna Penn: take advice from people who are successful in their field.
While I’m not attending any movie premieres for adaptations of my fiction, I do write stories that stay with people. I get occasional (what my wife and I call) genius telegrams. In my imagination, they always contain the words:
“Oh my God! I knew you could write, but this!!!!?”
When it comes to ghostwriting and content writing, I’ve had many happy clients. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years, about the same time Google took off its training wheels.
So to come full circle: I feel like I’m in a position where I can give some advice.
A good writing tip helps the writer communicate their point(s) in a way that’s clear and engaging. It might concern a phase before, during, or after you’ve finished a draft.
With that criteria in mind, I hope that you’ll find these tips helpful, starting with the most important of all.
This one seems to be at the end of most lists of “rules,” guidelines, and tips for writers. It’s no longer a surprise, but it’s nonetheless important, so I’m just getting it out of the way.
First listen to the advice you receive, and then decide whether you’ll use it or ignore it.
But when you decide not to heed some advice, don’t do it from a standpoint of superiority.
“What do you know about writing, grandad?”
“I’m not taking advice from some kid!”
I don’t think there’s anyone I can’t learn something from. But you don’t have to follow anyone’s rules like a computer program either.
Understand the rules before you break the rules. It’s helpful to understand them and know what you’re breaking. In any case, it’s important to understand why people follow a “rule.” Sometimes there’s a real point to it. But then break, break, break! it into little pieces and laugh if it serves your purpose to do so.
For better or for worse, this sort of thing can happen when you break the rules.
That might even mean breaking your own personal “rules.” I just did. I normally hate seeing the same word repeated three times.
I also avoid rhetorical questions, but I’m about to give them out like Greenpeace leaflets in the next section because I think they work there.
What are you saying?
In the end, the success of your work is based on whether you communicated your idea well or whether you created the feeling you aimed for.
Do you want to scare the crap out of someone? Do you want them to believe that dragons exist? Do you want them to understand why you started your business? Do you want to convince them that “excellence and stuff” is super important to you?
Like fiction writing, content writing has a purpose. Keeping that purpose in mind will help you stick to the point and please your readers.
A fellow writing student described his writing process as starting with a skeleton and then putting flesh on the bones. I’ve forgotten many things since university, but I think of writing in these terms ever since.
Some fiction writers like a detailed plan that’s about as long as the novel will be. Others start with a single idea and have little foresight where it will lead.
How you write is a matter of personal preference.
For me, it’s helpful to have an outline when writing content like blog posts, articles, or newsletters. An outline keeps you moving toward a goal or conclusion. It gives you an idea of the shape of what you’re creating and helps you make sure the result will be balanced.
One of the best things about an outline is that whenever you decide not to follow it, you don’t go blindly stomping off into the dark. Walking blindly into the woods is a writing technique in itself, but you can save yourself some heartache and meet more deadlines by writing in such a way that you can deviate from your plan knowing how that will impact the piece as a whole.
This is day-one-fiction-class stuff.
It’s kind of handy to have this in mind. It’s simple. It works.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that each part repeats the previous without adding value and imparting new or more in-depth knowledge to the reader.
Patience, children – yes, it gets repetitive after the fifth “I do not like green eggs and ham,” but there’s a twist at the end.
One of the things to remember is that while your blog post is one cohesive piece, it will probably have different parts that fit together.
When finding it a challenge to write 100,000 words of a novel, it can be helpful to break it up and think of it in a different way, such as 50 connected short stories, or: a set-up, some complications, and a payoff.
Similarly, breaking up a blog post can make the point easier to chew.
In both content writing and fiction, the (micro)story needs to be relevant. A subplot or vignette within a novel tends to work best when it’s relevant to the wider story, sometimes as a counterbalance or to directly support the theme.
In my experience, personal stories don’t translate too well to fiction.
I once had a story rejected because: “People don’t talk like that. They would never talk to each other like that in real life.”
They had pulled out the one, tiny bit of the story that was word-for-word real-world inspired. The whole story was based on a real conversation and it was the real conversation that seemed out of place.
Strangely, it requires some artifice to make reality seem plausible in fiction. In content writing, however, that hasn’t been an issue. Personal stories ring true. Throw them in – as long as they’re relevant.
I don’t think about all these tips while I’m writing.
There’s a line in Black Swan (2010) as Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is trying to get Nina (Natalie Portman) to let go:
“All that discipline for what?”
Study, theory, and repetition are important, but when it comes to performing, it’s time to use all that training to express something.
On Radio 4’s Add to Playlist podcast, Cerys Matthews was asked: “Is music maths?”
To paraphrase, her answer was: “Yes, but not while you’re performing.”
When writing, just write.
In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande writes at length about the duality of writers, suggesting that they have and benefit from dual personas. She suggests that writing and editing need to be different. So different that they would require a hat change.
A self-published author wearing three hats. Left to right: writer, publisher, editor. Also, don’t smoke.
For me, they are connected, but I’m normally doing one more than the other.
I’m not against cleaning up your text as you go. Personally, I don’t mind hanging around a sentence to make it better. It spoils the flow of the writing process, but I’m content to trade that for a sentence I prefer.
However, I would definitely recommend not censoring your first draft.
Especially with content farms and early AI text generators diluting the potency of the written word online, we need heart, personality, and edginess now more than ever.
There will be plenty of time to censor and refine your writing the following day. However, once you’ve got a cohesive, finished piece – that thing that made you gasp may be the thing that holds the whole piece together.
Of course, you may end up cutting that part as well for the sake of the flow or the point, but you should (almost*) definitely go there, at least in the beginning. If your writing isn’t exciting you, it’s probably not going to excite your reader, either.
*Just don’t be a jerk. If you’re tempted to be an asshat, please do censor yourself.
Whether it’s a 300,000-word novel or a 140-character nano story, every word counts.
Your word choice is incredibly important. It’s where your vocabulary meets the needs of the reader and serves the purpose of the article.
I don’t suggest anyone breaks their heart over individual words. That way madness lies. But do appreciate how powerful words are and choose them mindfully.
Changing one word can change an entire sentence. Changing the sentence affects the whole paragraph. Changing the paragraph affects the page. And changing the page affects the post.
Sometimes, a word is that big a deal.
I was recently involved in a discussion about the word “retch” for one of our articles with three people across three time zones. Alternatives were suggested and rejected on various grounds. Words are important.
All words have connotations.
For example, “light” is the opposite of heavy. But it also means pale and not serious.
It can be insulting, such as being called a lightweight or adding the suffix -lite to something you consider a diluted version of something else, such as The Hunger Games, which is ostensibly Battle Royale-Lite.
It might make someone think of a lightbulb or a lighthouse or smoking (don’t do it!).
All these meanings (and more) can come into play when you see the word “light.”
As a writer, you typically intend one thing, but you need to be aware that you’ll rub against other meanings and feelings, too. This can work to your advantage or it can trip you up.
Obsessing about word choice while writing will slow you down and give you chest pain. Instead, just appreciate that your words are very powerful, because of what they mean, how they originated, how they change, their connotations, and all the words you rejected over them. On your second pass, you can see which ones should stay and which ones should be replaced by more suitable alternatives.
Ultimately, choose the word that means what you mean and feels right, too. While I’m a big advocate of keeping things simple, I don’t slavishly choose the simplest word (anymore). That’s why I used advocate instead of fan.
“Wow, OK Dean. No, that’s cool, man.”
Some of the best stories have an underlying mood or theme running through them.
In fiction writing, the theme (or rather, a theme) is something that often develops on its own. The writer might notice a pattern developing and go with it. They might be unaware that there is anything going on beneath the surface until someone points it out. Or, they may discover it on their second or third draft, and decide to turn it into a thing.
A theme can hold things together. Like when an interior designer uses an accent color to unite several areas or rooms.
The theme of madness in Shakespeare’s King Lear is reflected in the Fool, Poor Tom, and the eponymous Lear himself. Suspiria (2018) is laced with aspects of motherhood and matriarchy.
In “The Realities of Being a Content Writer That Clients Never Knew,” we played with the idea of a particular gangster movie, the opening of which mimicked my own feelings about becoming a writer, only my story didn’t have a cool explosion in the background.
Developing, identifying, or falling over a theme is not a prerequisite — none of these tips are — but there’s something satisfying about a motif. It makes writing feel intentional and grounded.
There can be a lot of pressure to publish content quickly. There are schedules and calendars and notifications reminding you that if you don’t upload your post at 15:30 on Thursday your computer will turn into a pumpkin.
It’s a great idea to let your project rest between writing and editing. A few hours if possible, but overnight is even better.
Distance helps you see your work with fresh eyes.
Especially when you’ve been working on something complex for a long time, you can be too close to it to really see it. Some distance can help you see the errors and the opportunities.
Since writing about AI in the content industry, I’ve been using the Originality AI Chrome extension, which follows as you work and can replay a “time-lapse video” of your content writing and revision process.
While text generators spew out text from top to bottom, like an automatic paper towel dispenser in a public toilet or an 80s sci-fi movie where the computer kills everyone at the end, it turns out that my writing process is much more like painting.
Can you guess where the artist began this painting?
The outline goes up like a quick sketch. And then I fill in the outline.
Frankly, it’s all over the place. It’s a bit embarrassing.
It’s like cooking at home compared to how it looks on celebrity chef TV shows. There’s egg on the ceiling. The light switch is dripping with cake mix. The smoke alarm’s going off. But it’s all fine in the end. The cake rose and tastes good.
Which is why Originality AI’s replays are — as far as possible — for my eyes only.
But it demonstrates this point. When writing a novel, for instance, you don’t need to start writing at the beginning – even if the story is told chronologically. You can start in the middle. Or you can start at the end and work backward.
As in fiction, in content writing the introduction is often one of the most challenging parts to write. On one hand, it must hook the reader; on the other hand, you don’t want to come across as gimmicky.
The good news is: you can write the introduction last. I did. You can go back to it over and over again as you deepen what you know about the subject and discover a theme or two by writing the post.
I’m not particularly interested in being in a field where you can hit a ceiling. Writing isn’t one of them. There’s so much to learn.
If these tips help you improve your content writing, that’s excellent. Writing these tips has helped me be a better writer, too, so, back slaps, hi-fives, and fist bumps all around.
Now – back to work.
Written by Dean Edwards
Dean lives in Southern France but was born in the UK, where he studied business and IT, and earned a degree in Writing. When he’s not creating content, he’s writing fiction, making music, and practicing martial arts. This is part bio and part affirmation.
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