8 Steps to Writing Something Worth Reading
Okay, so you think you are ready to write. You’ve heard that blogging is the way to go, so you are going to go. Perhaps it’s that you don’t really like the follow up emails that came with the program you joined and that promised you “wouldn’t have to do a thing.” Maybe you want to write an instructional e-book or publish a novel.
You have a few ideas stashed away in the back of your mind and a few more on scraps of paper lying here and there. You know exactly what you want to write. You begin.
It doesn’t take very long before you realize that writing isn’t quite as easy as it looks. The words which sounded so good when they were spinning around in your head don’t seem as good when you read them on paper. And they don’t come quite as quickly. That blank page you started with is still mostly blank.
Knowing what to write and knowing how to write are two different things. You can learn how to create a blog, or publish a book on Amazon, or even how to make a dynamic looking web page. You can learn all of the rules about what you are trying to say, the order you should say it, and what the page should look like, but if you can’t write something worth reading, it’s all for naught.
Here are 8 Steps to Writing Something Worth Reading. You will find that if you follow these steps when you are writing, everything about your finished product will be better. What you write will have a far higher chance of being worth someone else’s time to read.
1. Believe that writing is magic. Your writing can’t progress until this truth gets into your very being. The marks that you put on a blank sheet of paper all need to serve one purpose: put what is in your mind into someone else’s mind.
You have been carried away before by words on paper. At times, they have made you laugh, cry, become angry or motivated, and every now and then, have moved you to actually do something. You have pictured the storms, felt the emotions. You have had your mind race ahead of the story to see what’s next. You have also read but a couple sentences, decided that what you were reading was not worth your time and quickly moved to something else that was.
The purpose of a magician is not to do something that can’t be done. It is to make you believe something happened which didn’t really happen. He takes a blank stage, puts some things on it, and does his best trick. All of the best props and pretty girls are a distant second to the trick itself. If he can make you believe, you like it. If he can’t, you don’t.
Writing is the same way. If you write without believing that every word—every word—is part of the magic, it will show. Your words will be but marks on a page, unable to do what they were put there to do.
2. Know your genre. Every genre, whether it be a western novel or a convention speech, a sales page for vitamins or an e-book for seniors, are all their own genres. They all have their own language, structure, and vocabulary.
Your genre is really the vehicle you are going to use to do your magic. When you decide to drive somewhere, your vehicle makes a difference. Driving up a deserted logging road in the mountains requires a different vehicle than driving across the city in rush hour traffic. The same goes for being in a NASCAR race or heading down the seventh fairway. You might get to your destination if you use the wrong vehicle, but it won’t give you the best results.
Be as specific as you can in this step. The more specific you are in the beginning, the greater the results you will have with your intended audience. Humor doesn’t work in a sales letter. Graphic violence doesn’t work in a western. OMG and LOL don’t work in an article about Medicare.
Which brings us to:
3. Know your audience. This isn’t just know that they are basically middle aged or basically middle class. It is KNOW them, like you know your best friend.
Because reading is such a personal experience, everything about what you write has to be created specifically for that person. What do they like? What do they NOT like? What keeps them up at night? What tickles their fancy?
Of all the steps to writing something worth reading, this is one of the most neglected. It is too easy to write as if you were the audience. You use the words and structure that you prefer. You write what “sounds good” to you.
This works if the audience is “you,” but fails miserably if the audience is someone else. This step is most important if you are writing to persuade. If your intent is to entertain, you can me more generic here. If it is to persuade, you have to be extremely focused on your audience, and write directly to them, and to the specific need, fear, or want that you are targeting.
4. Read incessantly. This is the single best way to learn imaginative and creative ways to put words together.
If you don’t read, you will never write something worth reading. You won’t learn enough through your own trial and error to write well. I have never read anything either by or about good writers where they said they didn’t read everything they could get their hands on.
Don’t make the mistake that so many people make of thinking that you should only read one type of material. If you are writing for the self-help market, you can’t just read self-help material and then re-package it. You need to read all types of writing. If you read for a half hour and all you get out of it is a clever way of turning a phrase that you would have gotten nowhere else, the half hour was well spent.
As a sideline note, don’t ever say to someone, “I just don’t like to read.” Those may be the words you speak, but what your listener hears is, “I love being ignorant.” In addition, if you don’t like to read, then why should someone else bother to read what you have written?
5. Do the groundwork. This is where most people short cut everything. An extra hour here might make the difference in a single sentence, which then turns an ordinary work into something extraordinary.
Groundwork includes research about your genre, your audience, your material, and your style. Most writers, especially beginning writers, are by nature impatient. The want to start something and just let it become whatever it is to become.
You can’t do that. Take the time to gather everything you will need to complete your project before you write the first word. Gather many times more material than you will ever use. If you write something and use every bit of the research material, you didn’t get enough. Don’t look at the material you don’t use as wasted time and effort.
Whether you put it aside to use later, or send it to the ubiquitous File 13, no amount of groundwork is ever wasted. Learning what not to use is as important as learning what to use.
6. Organize before you begin. If you don’t lay out your beginning, middle, and end, you will wander all over the place, and your lack of organization will show.
Like most writers, I used to end up with dozens of file cards, slips of paper, bookmarked websites, and snippets copied and pasted into a Word file. When it came time to write, I would then try to arrange them in the best order, choosing what goes where for everything I had collected. Inevitably, along the way I would discover things about which I had not thought, and would be forced to return briefly to the groundwork phase. This is a normal part of the writing process.
A few years ago, I was really struggling with this step. It seemed like I was wasting far too much time and energy trying to remember and place all of the parts of a piece. I now use a product called Scrivener. It has allowed me to go from finishing a book every three to five years to finishing two to three per year. I find it lowers my organization time for any writing project that I am working on. It’s an indispensable product for me. You can see it and get a free trial at Scrivener.
7. Practice. There is no substitute here.
Anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first, and if you aren’t willing to write poorly at first, you won’t ever write exceptionally. Don’t expect everything you write to be good. It won’t be. That’s a truth that every writer, of any level of expertise, learns or has learned. It is also one of the hardest lessons of all. It is always difficult to read something you have written and admit to yourself that it just isn’t very good and needs to be thrown away or seriously edited.
Someone once said to me (and I dearly wish I could properly attribute it) that good writing comes from re-writing. As much as I wanted to avoid this truth, I have come to accept it.
Here are two tips I have learned to make practice not so difficult. First, I set aside time just to write. No purpose, no genre, no organization or anything else. Just write. I have found that a half hour or hour of this on a regular basis is always productive. I begin to see things in my writing that I can tweak and make better, and occasionally I write something that I go back to and think, “that’s really good.”
Second, throw some things away. We all have files of things we have written that just didn’t make the grade. Some of them might be salvageable with some serious re-working, but there are also piles of things which are never going to see the light of day.
You will find that if you write with the attitude that you are going to do away with anything which is not of high quality, you will always work harder to do your best. You will start looking at every word in every sentence so that you won’t have to throw it away some day.
8. Have someone honest read it. This can’t be Aunt Bessie or your BFF. You need honesty, and you need to have thick skin, as it can be brutal.
This is, and always will be, a two edged sword. You want for everything you write to be good, but you don’t want anyone to tell you that it’s not if it isn’t. The only way you will ever know if what you have written is any good is for someone else to read it. It’s much better for someone close and trusted to give you the news one way or the other than to learn it from the public. Just remember that any criticism is of what you have written, and not of you personally.
You are not obligated to, nor will you, use and apply all of the critique you get on something. Look at it honestly (which is the hardest part) and then use what you can. Just beware of anyone who tells you that everything you write is perfect. They may be helping your ego, but they aren’t helping you become a better writer.
There you have it. 8 (Mostly Simple) Steps to Writing Something Worth Reading. Apply them and your writing will improve.