7 Unexpected Lessons That Changed The Way I Write
If you’ve ever run out of the bathroom to jot down an idea or found a quarter in a birthday cake as a kid, you know how some of the best things come out of nowhere.
Writing has been a lot like that for me.
Often, it is not the lectures, conferences, and training courses that have the greatest impact.
It’s the seemingly insignificant things that help you the most.
Here are seven examples of this theory in action—seven totally unexpected lessons I learned along the way that have undoubtedly made me a better writer.
I hope it does the same for you!
1. One question that makes your writing effective
An older journalist friend of mine once asked me this question when discussing a title, and I’ve used it ever since. Here’s how it works:
Every time you sit down to write anything, ask, “So what?” And keep asking this question until you get to the gist of what the reader has in mind.
“It’s the 2022 Mazda MX-5 Miata.” so what?
“Mazda launched the 2022 MX-5 Miata…” So what?
The final copy will depend on your audience and what their priorities are. If you’re talking to academics, your answer will be different than that of new moms. But the important part is that you find it.
I’ve found this asking myself, “So what?” So to get to the real gist of what’s really important about the topic made my version more efficient and concise.
This has made me more effective at communicating in general.
2. There is a secret formula
If you talk to famous writers, you will find that they all have a unique way of approaching the writing process.
While some work on sensation, others find a formula or strategy and iterate on the winning technique, applying it in different contexts.
I’ve found some of my own over the years, but I’ve also borrowed a few.
Lists are a great example, and they can be created in different ways:
- Visually appealing: From shortest to longest, the number of characters.
- memory based: The most important are listed first. The most remembered item was listed last.
- Patterns: Power of 3, Popularity of 7, etc.
- Logical order: logical or procedural.
- Decision order: Use the anchor bias to guide decisions (eg: placing the product you want to sell most often in the middle).
But there is another way.
Several years ago, a popular comic writer shared some thoughts on… What made Letterman’s top ten lists so successful.
First, he said, each item is written as a separate joke with a punch line, so it stands on its own. The writers also designed the sixth joke to elicit a prolonged laugh to give the team a chance to change the graphics on the screens.
Will these tips lead to effective business content? not exactly. But they taught me to think more closely about the function of content.
I pay close attention to how words appear on the page.
I deliberately arrange lists using operations that override standard formulas. And I use content to fill in the gaps of the design or the customer journey.
Most importantly, I try and test to create formulas that work for a specific audience that I can use for repeated success.
3. Everything I’ve learned about writing is a lie
Your teachers have been busy and would probably rather do anything than read your high school copy of a five-paragraph essay.
That’s why schools teach you to explain what you’ve learned in a way that’s quick and easy to correct.
But your readers are not your teachers.
Readers don’t want to know what you’ve learned (usually, anyway), and they don’t try to rank more than 50 papers. So why write the same way for both audiences?
It was not.
This is one of the best explanations I have ever come across. Which is correct?
If you are writing for a cat site, the first sentence is the right choice.
If you’re talking to a dog lover, the second answer is the best answer.
Why? Because dogs care about the dog.
If you’re a traditional teacher or writer, you might be a little annoyed by this. I’m sorry, but it works. When your goal is dollars, not degrees, arbitrary writing rules created by some 500-year-old men are irrelevant.
When we read, we focus on the subject of the sentence and the elements mentioned first. By modifying sentence structure, you can emphasize what’s important to the reader and build a connection.
However, keep in mind that you cannot break the rules whenever you feel like it. Context matters.
I’m far more likely to break the rules and write conversationally in a blog post than I am when writing documents for investors.
And if you take the time to understand your audience, you’ll know when, where, and which rules to break.
(Bribing your editor helps too. Ours is great and they do a great job!)
Editor’s note: Thank you! I’m embarrassingly prone to compliments and milk chocolate.
4. Language and music need rhythm
Long before I became a writer, I was a musician.
I learned the power of tension, release, phrasing, and using notes in just the right way to express an idea or tell a story. I soon discovered that music was much more than a story without words.
Music whispers a secret story to the listener’s soul, creating a new world that neither the musician nor the listener has ever seen.
Scientific research supports this.
During a concert, the audience’s breathing and physiological responses sync up with the music. Musicians’ bodies are in sync with the music and with each other physically, mentally, and physiologically.
The result is a collective moment of connection and a shared experience that is similar and different for everyone at the same time.
Storytelling can have the same effects.
- Music has notes organized into scales.
- Actions are arranged in phrases.
- Phrases are formed into themes to tell a story.
- Writing has messages organized into words.
- Words are arranged into sentences.
- Sentences form into paragraphs to tell a story.
Use it. Use your writing to tell a story with tension, détente, phrases, themes, and rhythms.
Make it flow in rhythms. If it doesn’t, adjust the wording until it does.
Most importantly, make sure your work has soul—even if you’re just telling the world about a new type of window-caulking.
If you are passionate and passionate about what you do, so will your readers.
At the very least, you will look real and human. Maybe a little different, but that’s fine too.
5. Make sure it’s you
When you listen to enough professional classical musicians, you begin to notice the difference between those who are good at it and those who have an instinctive passion for what they do.
Consider a gymnastics competition. Two competitors can flawlessly perform the same routine, and one of them will always get a higher score.
While both competitors had technically and soundly correct performances, someone who is truly passionate about the sport will look at the right referee, in the right way, at just the right time.
They point their fingers and flex their toes almost by instinct to create flawless lines with a little touch of quiet grace that draws the judge in and creates an emotional connection that makes all the difference.
Your writing needs to be a flawlessly pointed toe or a quick look in time.
It needs you, your passion and your unique voice by putting the subtleties to the words that will make your connection with the reader.
6. You can choose to be great
I am a chronically busy person. I’m always working on something.
And if I’m not working on something, I catch up on it or start something else. This works fine.
At least, I thought it was.
During a “do it all now” moment, a trusted professor and friend told me:
“Stop doing all those other things. Focus on what you do best, and it will get easier.”
Instead of putting 100% into one thing and 100% into another, put 200% into the thing you’re good at.
You will get 300% better results. Think of it as economies of scale.”
I argued at first but soon realized he was right.
There was a bit of pain in the short term, but it paid off in the end. And it paid off in a way that was far better than I could dream of sleeping in the back of a lecture hall.
Websites, writers, and marketers spend hours trying to be everything to everyone, while keeping all balls up in the air. They forget what they are good at and never discover it because they never dedicate themselves to it.
They dabble in design, development, business management tasks, and many other things that others can do more efficiently.
For you, this could be related to a sound, style, product or content type. Whatever or however many content you have planned, make sure you know about it and stick to it.
7. Our brains aren’t all that smart
If you’ve clicked on titles like this (or are reading this article right now), your mind has made a mistake. You see, your brain has both autopilot and manual mode.
When faced with a complex problem, you will carefully gather and analyze information to make a decision. If you’re doing a routine task, your brain is on autopilot — sort of like mental scripts or macros.
It does this mostly for the sake of efficiency and accuracy. Well…that’s the idea, anyway.
But sometimes things go horribly wrong.
Those addresses above? Each one is an example Survival bias.
Survival bias occurs when you focus on things that pass an arbitrary test or threshold and forget to look at all the things that didn’t.
We focus on successes and forget about failures, confuse correlation with causation, and overestimate expected outcomes.
The title examples indicate that you can get the same results as the author if you take the steps described by the author. But here’s the problem:
Click-bait content does not include information about all the help, failures, knowledge, luck and other benefits that have contributed to the author’s success.
Not everyone gets a $50,000 salary for their first job. Even fewer are able to save 35-40%.
Many people can’t afford an education, don’t have financially savvy families, and can’t share costs or get a $20,000-a-year salary raise.
There is no mention of losses or failed investments.
Everyone is different. Very few readers will have all of these advantages, but that won’t stop many of them from trying anyway.
Survival bias isn’t the only fault. We tend to focus more on things we’ve heard recently or that were more emotional.
Repetition encourages us to see the statement as more accurate. And the entrenchment of bias It influences which option we select to be the best.
From a writer’s perspective, understanding errors and biases like these can greatly improve responses to your copy.
In terms of your business, knowing how to identify biases may be just enough to prevent you from buying software you don’t need or making risky investments.
Always be searching
Mechanics on the assembly line, sports on TV, a trusted friend, an unrelated class…
Just because something isn’t specifically about writing doesn’t mean it can’t help you get better. Find them and be open to trying and testing new things.
This may result in an unusual strategy, style, or writing style, but in the end, that’s the point isn’t it? To stand out and be different.
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Featured image: Shutterstock / vovan