Four hidden tricks to focus your copy and silence your doubts.
Want to know a secret? As a professional tech writer, I’m fortunate to work with seriously intelligent and talented folks. But almost every time I’m sent copy for editing, it’s prefaced with: “I’m really not very good at writing.”
Honestly, hands up, who hasn’t doubted their writing abilities? It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a professional writer second-guessing your copy, or a developer agonising over your latest presentation. Your confidence gets knocked every time a document comes back, covered in red ink, re-writes and tough comments. Mine too.
But how do you know if the words you’re weaving are actually any good? Really, this is where the greatest problem lies — writing is unashamedly subjective. What constitutes ‘good’ writing to one person, can be entirely dreadful to another.
Setting grammar and structure aside, I want to share four tricks I’ve picked up over the years that focus your copy and silence your nerves in moments of doubt.
- Know your audience
Absolutely everything I create begins and ends with the audience. As a young cub reporter, this was drilled into me each and every day in the newsroom — what matters to your readers? Why would they bother reading to the end?
Today, I ask myself the same question. Why would my readers bother reading to the end? To understand this, you need to understand your audience. So before you begin writing, ask yourself:
- Who is my intended audience?
- What action do I want them to take?
- How does my audience prefer to receive information — what medium should I deliver this message in, be it a blog, whitepaper, or even a video.
2. Tell your audience what to expect — and keep your promise
You’ve researched your audience, you’ve carefully selected their preferred medium, now ask yourself one more time: Why should they bother reading to the end?
Tell them exactly what to expect and exactly why they should invest their time in reading, with a killer introduction. Then follow up on that promise with your words — make sure your audience spends the rest of their invested time in learning exactly what you offered them in that introduction.
Remember, how many times have you forgiven some errant grammar and stodgy sentences because you’re being offering compelling, informative content that matters to you?
3. Stick to one style
On the topic of grammar — there’s a ton of style guides out there that define the standards for writing, formatting and design. Always ask for the style guide used on your chosen medium, like your company blog. As a bonus trick, I always ask for company messaging if I’m writing for a company or member of the C-suite. This is often buried internally, but provides important pointers to the phrasing and keywords a company is looking for.
If you don’t have a style guide available, or are writing for your own blog — choose the guide that makes the most sense to you. I personally recommend AP, but so long as you choose a style and stick to it, your audience comes to rely on your consistency and won’t be thrown by wayward commas or mixtures of US and English spellings.
4. Kill your darlings
There’s blood, sweat and tears in writing — it just ends up on the cutting room floor. The practice of ‘killing your darlings’ was drummed into me by a delightful subeditor called Bryan. He was more than 60-years-young and a lifetime in the news business had sharpened his editing skills to a point so lethal, your words would practically fall off the page as it rose to the top of his editing pile.
There was no room for lengthy adjectives with Bryan. Every word had to earn its place on that page. And this is the single best piece of advice I can offer — make every, single word count. Never ask your audience to invest in more than what you’ve promised.
Have you swept your writing for style and grammatical errors using your chosen style guide? Now go back and kill your darlings. Delete any word, sentence or paragraph that does not fully support the story you’re telling.
Writing isn’t an innate talent — it’s a skill that develops with time, effort and dedication. If you want some heartening proof, have a look at surprising secrets of writers’ first book drafts, from the BBC. When your inner critic is screaming, remember that writing is subjective. Aside from good structure and clean grammar, so long as you have carefully considered your audience, your style and thoroughly killed your darlings, you’re fine. Maybe it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but who said you have to write to please everyone?
Did you enjoy my musings on ‘is my writing any good?’ Do you also have moments of doubt about your writing abilities? Share your best pieces of advice in the comments.