Editing notes on my latest manuscript. I've got some work to do!
In business, you’ll often find yourself needing to get some writing done. Whether it’s producing a blog post for your website, writing a proposal for a pitch or award application, or just finding the right words for a client email, the ability to communicate via the written word is a vital skill.
As an author who churns out thousands of words every month, I’m often subjected to exclamations of awe from my non-writing colleagues. How do you do it? Where do all the words come from? And what can a normal, non-writer person do to improve their written communication skills?
In this article, I share five “writing hacks” that I guarantee will help you write more quickly, concisely, and eloquently.
Why Not Try … Creating an Outline
Have you ever wondered why some people can write an entire blog post in an hour, while others will struggle with the wording of a three-sentence email for days?
Once you know what you want to say, all you’re doing is writing down what you’re thinking in your head. But without a plan, you don’t know where to start, or how to finish. If you’re staring at the screen for hours trying to figure out what to say, it’s usually because you don’t have an outline.
Numerous techniques for outlining a piece of writing abound, and there is no one right answer on HOW to create an outline. But there is a clear consensus among writers that outlining is vital to get past the dreaded writer’s block and put those words on paper.
With the exception of short emails, I outline every piece of writing I do. My outlines aren’t terribly elaborate or structured - for this article, all I did was write a list of the five hacks I wanted to talk about, and for a longer piece like a novel I write a half page of short sentences describing the main plot points. You shouldn’t be spending hours creating the outline - it’s a way to get your ideas down on paper so you can start organising them. Many people like to scribble their ideas down into a thought bubble and then organise them into a list later.
Once you’ve created a list of what you want to talk about, you can sort the list into an order - add an introduction and conclusion and you have all the information you need to start producing practically any piece of nonfiction prose, from marketing copy to fee proposals.
Why Not Try … Writing Out of Order
When I write any non-fiction piece, I never move in a linear fashion. Instead, I create a short outline (see above). Because I love to split a piece down into subheadings (it makes it much easier for the reader to digest), each point on the list becomes a subheading. Then, beneath each subheading, I fill in all the information, one at a time, in no particular order. In this particular article, I’m writing this subheading first, even though it’s second on the list.
When I’ve completed all the subheadings, I write the conclusion. Now that I’ve produced the meat of the article, I have a better idea of how to summarise it into a pithy takeaway.
Only once I’ve finished the body and conclusion of a piece do I go back and write the introduction. The introduction is usually where people get stuck on a piece - how do you make it sound awesome? What’s a good way to tie all the ideas you’re going to talk about together? Save yourself the hassle and write the introduction last. I guarantee you it will flow much easier now that the rest of the article is done.
Why Not Try … Writing With a Timer
I am a huge supporter of timer writing, as it has more than quadrupled my writing output over the last year. Timer writing is all about eliminating distractions, and getting you to focus on one task for a set period of time. The buzz of the timer gets you thinking like a game - you want to focus to get as much done as possible, and even try to improve your wordcount or achievement next time.
I am actually working on this article with a timer right now. I’ve got 8:24s left on the clock. My goal is to completely finish the piece before the buzzer sounds. It’s taken me 45 minutes to write this article, whereas it might have taken me 90 if I let all the distractions get to me.
Working with a timer is easy. Just set it for a short period of time - I recommend 15-20 minutes to start with, close all your distractions, and go! When your time is finished, reward yourself with a short break, then sit back down and set another timer session … and so on until you’re finished.
6:45s to go ...
Read more about the Pomodoro Technique - a slightly-more-advanced form of timer writing, on the Pomodoro website. This is the technique many writers use to break through writer’s block and write 5-10k words a day.
Why Not Try … Reading Voraciously
All great writers are also great readers. It doesn’t matter what you read - newspapers, blogs, books, advertisements - every piece of prose will teach you something. If you want to improve your writing, then start reading with a writer’s eye. Don’t just acknowledge that you enjoy a piece of writing - think about why you like it. Pay attention to the writer’s vocabulary, their tense, their structure, the way they formulate their argument. Learn to identify common features among your favourite writers.
Next, work on incorporating these techniques into your own work.
Why Not Try … Closing Your Damn Browser
I know, I know, we are all guilty of this. In fact, while I’m writing this piece, I have tabs open with other articles I’m working on, my email, a blog post from a writer I love that I’m using as inspiration, and - of course - Facebook.
Of course, I’ve also checked Facebook twice, answered an email, and gone back to add some words in one of my other articles while working on this blog post. And every time I’ve flicked away, my brain has had to change tack. If I instead focused only on one task - that is, finishing this article - I’d have done it in half the time. Then I could move on to something else.
The only way to really ignore these distractions is to close your browser tabs. Just do it. Seriously, you’re not missing anything. You could also use distraction apps like Self Control or Focus Me to prevent you from accessing distractions while you’re writing, but personally I think we all just need to learn a bit more focus.
Cough. Especially me. Cough.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any hack that will actually get the writing done for you - unless you hire a writer, you have to do that yourself. But improving your written communication skills isn’t as difficult as you think. Try these writing hacks today, and let us know how you improve!