What’s the trick to effective writing? I think the biggest secret is to stop focusing on the product — the piece of writing — and start looking, instead, at your writing process.
I know this sounds counterintuitive. If you want more effective writing, doesn’t it make sense to concentrate on, well, the words that people are going to read? But compare writing to other fields that require hard work and creativity. Consider, for example, a chef. Any chef needs superior knife skills — and a trained palate. But he or she also needs time management, leadership ability, basic accounting skills, and excellent communications.
In other words, you measure chefs not just by the taste of their sauces but also on the way they run their kitchens. Even the very best food produced by the most incandescently wonderful cooks will suffer if the chef can’t keep the food flowing out of the kitchen.
It’s the same with wordsmiths. The secret sauce to effective writing is not so much a buttery condiment as it is a series of choices about your behaviour.
Here’s a list of behaviours you might want to consider:
1. Starting work right away vs. procrastinating. Writers who lunge at their work, like horses bolting out of the starting gates, are far more likely to succeed because they have the luxury of spending more time on their writing. Note, this doesn’t mean the job is necessarily more time-consuming. Instead, the extra time gives writers the freedom to think about their work while they’re away from their computers doing other stuff — walking, driving, standing in line at the bank, cooking dinner, washing dishes, and perhaps even while sleeping. This free, unstructured time — controlled by the subconscious brain — is profoundly helpful.
2. Writing a little bit at a time vs. clearing a whole chunk of the day for it. Effective writers might almost seem to dabble at their jobs. They write for modest amounts of time and reserve the big commitments for editing and rewriting. They understand that collecting words is a bit like collecting comic books or first editions; success depends, in part, on some factors outside their control. They start early and watch while the words accumulate. The “blank page” holds little terror for them because they don’t let it stay blank for long.
3. Writing as fast as they can vs. trying to edit while they write. Fast writers not only have less angst, they also have more time to edit. For that reason, they’re smart enough to put their editing brains “on hold” while kicking out that very rough first draft. They know they’ll have plenty of time for rewriting, later, once the first draft is done. They have mastered the ability to delay the gratification of editing until the writing is complete.
4. Committing to the hard work of rewriting vs. believing success depends on talent. All successful writers understand that no one — no one — produces excellence without significant rewriting. Rewriting is part of the job. For some, it’s their favorite part; for others it’s a necessary evil. Regardless, they do it, spending at least double the time on self-editing that they spent writing. Here is where you can easily invest half a day, if you like.
5. Reading good writing, mindfully vs. reading only for entertainment or relaxation. Reading to learn is not like watching TV. It demands close attention — perhaps even copying the work, word for word, and almost certainly marking up the text with coloured pens to discover and highlight the author’s techniques.
To produce effective writing, you need to adopt the right habits. Identify these habits, practice them and reward yourself for using them. Suddenly, you’ll discover that you have become an effective writer. ∞
Want to read more great advice from Daphne Gray-Grant on how to write better. Here you go!