6 of the Best Pieces of Advice from Successful Writers

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penI’ve been reading some advice from successful writers lately and exploring what their routines are like to see what I can learn about

Here are six of the most common pieces of advice I came across that have helped me a lot improving my writing here at Buffer.

It also features actionable tips for you on how to implement them in your own writing.

 

1. The best ways to get over the “blank page hurdle”

I write because it comes out — and then to get paid for it afterwards? I told somebody, at some time, that writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money. I’ll take it. — Charles Bukowski

Unlike Charles Bukowski, writing well doesn’t come so easily for a lot of us (including me). It takes a lot of mental energy, strains your working memory and often makes you feel vulnerable if you try to be open and honest in your work.

The pure effort of writing is hard enough, but coupled with the pain of putting your work out into the world and letting others judge it, this can be enough to stop you from getting started at all.

The trick to overcoming this isn’t easy, but it’s surprisingly effective: give yourself permission to write badly, and just start.

Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird wrote an excellent essay on why writers must start with horrible drafts:

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

Anne’s essay makes me feel much better about the hard work of writing great content, as she makes it clear that all great writers struggle with their first drafts:

We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid.

So to get over the biggest hurdle—the blank page—just get writing. Don’t be afraid that your draft might be bad (it probably will be, but that’s okay.)

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper.

10 Rules for Writing First Drafts

(Great infographic from Copyblogger)

2. Discard clichés: How to stop writing like “you’re meant to write”

Down with the cliché! If only it were that easy. Clichés surround us, and it’s surprisingly hard to avoid using them.

Put simply, in writing, clichés are bland and overused phrases that fail to excite, motivate, and impress your readers or prospective buyers. (6)

Clichés dominate our language both in speaking and writing. This is because we hear them all the time, so they become the first phrases that come to mind when we want to express ourselves. Which is exactly why they’re a problem:

Given that clichés are the phrases that have struck our eardrums uncountable times, we either don’t associate them with particular ideas and products, or we associate many products and ideas with a particular cliché.

The fact that clichés are so generic you can attach them to any idea makes them ineffective. (6)

This actually has a lot to do with how we take in words and phrases when we read. The more familiar a term or phrase becomes, the more often we start skipping over it as we read, rendering it ineffective.

The best way to avoid this problem is to use different language to explain familiar concepts. It’s a careful balancing act between being so different that your readers are turned off by the effort of understanding your content and being so familiar that your work becomes trite.

In other words, your audience has to feel your content is new, but also credible. (7)

3. Don’t make it sound like writing, instead “Write like you speak”

It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style. — P.D. James

Novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard knew how important the reader was. More important than his English Composition teachers, that’s for sure. He never let “proper” writing get in the way of telling a great story and making it engaging for the reader.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. — Elmore Leonard

Writing like you speak is harder than it might sound. For some reason, it’s easy to “put on” a tone when you start writing, without even realising it. This is something I’m still working on, and it takes a lot of practice.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s list of rules for writing with style, he explains how much better his writing is when it sounds the way he talks:

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.

One thing that’s really helped me to improve in this area is a trick that Leo taught me: imagine someone sitting in front of you as you type, and write as if you’re talking to them.

4. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

When I write like I talk, I tend to write long sentences. I can write a sentence that fills an entire paragraph sometimes. Although this might be how the words flow out of my mouth, one of the benefits of writing is that you have a chance to edit your work before the reader gets hold of it.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy was a fan of getting to the point without wasting words:

Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

Never write more than two pages on any subject.

This tip is less about editing (which we’ll get to next) and more about keeping things simple. As much as you can, get to your point quickly and use the most simple language you can.

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. — Kurt Vonnegut

5. Over time, try to write less, not more

And now we come to editing. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about writing, ever, is how core editing is to the process of great writing.

The bottom line is this: Write less, not more. — Jeff Goins

Once you get more comfortable with just getting started and writing a rubbish first draft, you will find that at least as much of the writing process is in the editing, if not more:

It actually takes more work to write a short post. You may find you spend twice as much time editing as you do writing. (11)

Having someone else to look over your work can help immensely in this stage, as can reading your work aloud and letting it sit in-between edits.

Most importantly, you’ll need to learn to step back from the process of writing and put on your editor’s hat. View your draft as objectively as you can, while asking whether it makes a clear point and whether you’ve used the shortest, most simple words and sentences you can.

Kurt Vonnegut has an excellent rule we can all use when editing:

Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

6. Keep writing, even when it already hurts

Lastly, the most important tip there is. I know Leo would agree with me here that the more we’ve both written, the more we’ve improved. We’ve also come to understand more about the process of writing and sharing content over time.

When we recently launched Buffer for Business, I remember discussing how the launch post might look like. And at moments like this, even when you’re almost out of ideas, to simply keep writing and see what comes is often one of the best ways to come up with a great story, at least, that’s how it turned out here.

As Jeff Goins says, the secret to prolific writing is practice:

Don’t write a lot. Just write often.

If you want to get better at anything, you have to practice. You have to be disciplined enough to show up when you don’t want to, and to keep at it when you’ve had enough.

I think this image says it all:

10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

(Another great infographic from Copyblogger)

What other tips do you have for bloggers, copywriters and content marketers? What have you learned from your own writing experience? Let us know in the comments.

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like What listening to a story does to our brains and 16 Top Tips from Blogging Experts for Beginners

Image credits: Copyblogger 1 and 2, gregwake

  • http://bebrainfit.com/ Deane Alban

    It’s hard to believe that writing doesn’t come easy for you, Belle Beth – you’re so good at it! My favorite tip is “give yourself permission to write badly”. Then at a later time I can tear it apart and rework it. My biggest challenge is to keep everything succinct and not put down more words just because I can.

    • Belle

      Thanks Deane! It definitely made me feel better to know that successful writers struggle with it too :)

  • http://www.developgoodhabits.com/ SJ Scott

    Beth,

    I love the tip to just get writing. I think this is key. I write well over 2K words a day, the only way to do this is to, like Nike says, “just do it”

    As you mentioned, it may be bad at first. I know my writing often is, but that is what editing is for.

    You can’t fix what you do not sit down and do in the first place.

    • Belle

      Agreed! Just putting a bad draft on the page definitely helps me to get going.

  • Sam

    Thanks for the advice and you are a great writer – I enjoy reading your blogs – the topics, language and delivery style all blend nicely and deliver an easy to understand and comfortable meaningful read. Nicely done.

    • Belle

      Thanks Sam!

  • http://www.thehectorfund.com Gins

    An excellent post, thank you for the inspiration!
    I love the Buffer blogs, but one bit of feedback: I find the interface for the blog a bit tough to read. The bright white background and gray text is hard on the eyes…am I alone in this? Just curious.

    • Belle

      Thanks for the feedback! I’ll pass it on to the team as I’m sure we have some ideas for a blog refresh in the future.

  • blueeyedadri

    Great post. Writing does take discipline even though we love doing it ;) I also write like I talk and end up with not only long sentences but half slang, which growing up in the UK not many editors can understand!

    • Belle

      Editing is a wonderful, if tedious, thing! :)

  • Nick Chmura

    Great tips Beth. I’ve been working on my writing a lot recently and reading more to see how different writers approach things; it is often very different! I’ve enjoyed Chuck Palahniuk’s fictional writing most over the past year and love this particular approach of his,

    “From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, loves, hates and a hundred others you love to use.”

    He never tells, he always shows.

    • Belle

      Ah that’s a good one!

    • http://www.screwthesystemnow.com/ ScrewtheSystemJoe

      Know what you mean Nick – really enjoy Chuck Palahniuk’s writing style as well.
      But how do you incorporate that style into your own? Harder than trying to pronounce his surname!

      • Nick Chmura

        It is hard! I don’t use this technique much for copy writing as precision is important, but when writing fictional pieces I’ve given it a try a few times. It takes so long to move the story, you may use 200 words to show that, “Bob is sad.” But when you read back through it, it sounds awesome and so vivid.

  • Geoffrey Winn

    Belle, I have come to really respect your posts, they are always informative. It is surprising that many professionals, so adept at their work, balk at content. Good tips.

  • Setsuli

    THANK YOU SO MUCH!! I am in the progress of writing thesis undergraduate and being a freelance reporter. Both required a different style of writing and your post does help me somehow! Again, thank you so much Belle! <3

  • http://www.souravghosh.com/ Sourav Ghosh

    Thanks a lot Beth. Recently I have started focusing on my writing. So needed this as inspiration. I am reading your post for the first time, but now i guess I’ll check for more. Looking forward to learn more from you.

  • P.S.

    This post is very helpful and I found it enjoyable to read. I do not write creatively, but for hire as a communicator. Looking back on my own development, I see a tendency to get absorbed in subject matter over time, at the expense of attention to technique. One can become smug and stale if not attentive. A cure for that, I’ve found, is the reality check of reading about technique–reading the bona fide masters in the specific type of writing one does. It is often very humbling but one needs to humble oneself to improve.

  • Forgettable Ross

    Very nice post! A great read with tea before diving into a piece I’m writing. I particularly like Leo’s advice about pretending there is someone else there as you type in order for yo’ own voice to come through… Should they also be in their underwear? Anyway – thanks for the article!

    As a writing tutor in college I’d recommend my students read “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (10 pg or so – Google it!). It’s somewhat dated so take it for what you will, but I could usually tell who had read it…

  • Bay Area Book Doctor

    Following up on Nick’s post about “thought” verbs. DECIDES. During my years of teaching graduate MFA candidates, this was the word that was the most overused. “I decided to go talk to her.” “She decided it was time to…” Don’t have someone “decide” to do something. The decision is implied in the action. Skip the decision and go to the deed itself.

  • Bay Area Book Doctor

    I love Number 2. And I would take it a step further. Avoid the cliche of imitating a much-imitated author with a very distinctive style. For some reason, at least one grad student in every class will channel Cormac McCarthy, to generally disastrous effect. Read a lot and find your own voice. You will naturally have influences, but if people read your work and say, “It sounds as though you’ve been reading a lot of AUTHORX,’ you need to branch out and read more widely.

  • http://www.GrowIntoGreatness.com/ Janet Autherine

    Thanks much! Great pep talk for some of us who grow weary. Malcolm Gladwell said that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at the thing that you are passionate about so, write, write, write!

  • Adam Muller

    Your referencing Anne Lamott makes the third time in the last month I’ve run into “Bird by Bird”. I’ve officially put it on my Christmas List:)

    Great highlights! I really like Vonnegut’s rule of sounding like himself.

    A bit of advice by Brenda Ueland that resonated with me, “The only way to write well, so that people believe what we say and are interested or touched by it, is to slough off all pretentiousness and attitudinizing.”

  • DellaGalton

    Oh yes, Number 1 for me. I keep reinventing that one – new ways to make myself write more. The latest was doing Nano – but I wrote short stories not a novel. Oh the joy of writing 33,000 words (didn’t make it to 50,000) of short stories in a month. And I’m a full time writer !

  • Swanky Cyn

    Another awesome post! THANK YOU! I really needed to read this. It answered sooo many things that have been on my mind lately. It was also comforting in that I’m on the right track in certain areas. But I have one last question, I’ve been a computer nerd for about 15 years and now I find that I can’t stand the idea of physically writing for too long. It’s easier for me to type. Aside from when blogging I’m wondering how much this matters? I aspire to become a writer and publish my own books. Thanks!

    -Swanky

  • Salman

    Very refreshing post. The point that really hit a chord was the point to keep writing when it hurts. It’s true the more you do, the better you will be overtime. I’m working on that right now. But I’ve read on several other blogs to write as I would speak. That advice doesn’t make any sense to me because when I talk, I don’t usually complete my sentences and I use a lot of fillers in my day to day conversations. So when I write like I talk… the writing sounds weird to me. Does this happen to anyone else?

  • http://SynergyMarketingPro.com/ Louisa YS Chan

    Great practical tips Belle! The infographs certain help too. The hardest bit for me is to actually start writing, to keep on writing and not discount everything that has been penned down. Often times I don’t dare to look at what has been written for fear of not being abe to take my own judgment for my draft. That’s when the writing project gets stretched beyond its schedule.

    The second hardest bit is to pick up enough courage, to come with fresh mind ready tear that piece apart and to almost start from scratch. Takes so much to do this …

    I recently started using mind maps for dumping down thoughts so I can mould the story different ways using simple language. I find your point 4 and 5 particularly helpful as I tend to repeat at times to emphasize a point!

    • Roger

      So, if it’s so difficult for you and you are afraid to look at what you’ve just written, maybe you should do something else. Stop whinning and start writing. Edit your material. This is not life or death. It’s writing. Sit down in a chair, create an outline, work that outline over and over again, and then write. Or give it up.

  • Akash Agarwal

    It’s a very helpful article for me. Great tips on successful writing. I have learned a lot from your article. Thanks for sharing such informative article.

  • http://www.cloudstaff.com/ Thelma Case

    Thanks for sharing these great tips in the important aspects of content writing. They are indeed helpful. Cheers!

  • Felix Brown

    You mentioned some good points. Every blogger should try to write on those topics in which he/she has great information and strong grip.

  • http://www.basicgrowth.com/ Simon Somlai

    These are actually some really good tips! Bookmarked! (y)

  • Astha

    Very clear and crisp, to the point article. Just what i needed to read :-) Dont write a lot, just write often. A wonderful tip.

  • http://guildofbloggers.com/ Jimmy R.

    Hi Belle,

    Thank you for the tips.

    I’d also like to share how one of my best and most effective ways to get rid of the blank page hurdle is to rant about why I can’t write anything about the topic.

    Because I in fact can’t write about anything, I have some pent-up frustration that needs some releasing.

    When I start writing my rant, boy do I write fast! :)

    It’s during when I’m in the middle of writing my rant that ideas slowly start flowing in like droplets of rain. Sometimes, they start coming in like a waterfall and I’m having a hard time keeping up writing about the ideas that just pops-up in my head.

    To everyone who’ll read my comment, try it. You’ll be amazed at how effective it is. :)

    Jimmy Rodela
    Freelance Writer
    http://guildofbloggers.com

  • http://www.chasingplacesbyjoann.org/ Joann

    “Don’t write a lot. Just write often.” – I like this tip. In an attempt to become a better writer, I force myself to write a lot each day even if it drains my creative energy. I guess I need to change this habit.

  • http://socialbugmarketing.net SocialBug

    Awesome blog! I like #4 in the last graphic, “Write even more than that” :-) Even if you’re out if thoughts, just keep going with randomness, you never know where or what your mind will lead to, so keep going and worry about editing later.

    I am constantly writing on topics pertaining to authors, publishers & public speakers on the Speaking of Wealth blog (speakingofwealth.com) & I will definitely use this advice! Thanks so much! Look forward to future blogs from you!