Home | Uncategorized | Becoming A Better Writer

Becoming A Better Writer

John Doherty —  January 10, 2013
  • Buffer
  • Vote on Hacker News
  • Sharebar
  • Buffer
  • Vote on Hacker News

A lot of talk has happened about content, content marketing, and blogging in 2012. We can thank Google, Tom Critchlow, and people like CopyBlogger for this, and I truly do. I love content and writing, and content writing and content marketing. I love it so much that I told people to stop blogging if they’re not going to put the time and effort into it.

I often have people tell me that I’m a good writer. That’s not a humblebrag, it’s a statement of fact. The truth is that I have always been a writer and loved writing, but honestly I used to suck at it. I’ve been writing on the Internet, on blogs of various kinds, for a decade now. And honestly, a lot of my stuff used to suck. And honestly, a lot of content I wrote on this site when I started it almost 2 years ago now….sucked.

I think I’m a decent writer and blogger now. So how have I done it?

The answer is plain and simple – I’ve written, practiced, and analyzed the results, and then written some more, practiced new lessons, and analyzed the results, then I write… You get the idea.

Read Everything

I’m a big fan of reading. My 13 year-old self would be flabbergasted to hear that, but it’s true. I devour as much content as I can each day because it keeps me learning and puts new ideas in my head. I used to have time during the day to read articles. Now I don’t because my responsibilities at work have increased and I still have all of my clients through Distilled as well.

What I do, instead, is follow this procedure:

- Every morning after clearing out my inbox, I go to a few sites that I know have good marketing content (Moz, Distilled, SEER)
- I read a few and schedule the updates throughout the day on social media (Twitter/Facebook)
- During the day, I check Twitter a few times and look for interesting articles. I’ve culled the people I follow on Twitter to those that I know will post interesting articles (and some of those are not marketing related. They’re just interesting).
- When I find these, I add them to Pocket using this Pocket Bookmarklet (drag it to your Bookmarks bar to save it):

PocketIt

I’ll then load up Pocket on my iPad before my commute home on the subway. Now, I realize I’m a bit unique to a lot of you because I take public transit to work, but often I’ll catch up on reading on a plane trip when traveling or on a slow evening (which are rare). But reading expands your mind and gets you thinking creatively, which helps you come up with new ideas.

Put All Your Ideas Somewhere and Tag Them

So what do you do with all of those ideas? Ideas are like dreams – if you don’t write them down right after you have them (did you ever keep a dream journal in college or high school? I did.), you lose it. What I do is immediately (no matter where I am) put the idea into a new note in Evernote and write down a few points. I also tag the post with two tags that I have found work for me – blog and draft. Then I write down a few points and maybe even the subheadings within the post to give it structure.

Here’s a screenshot of my drafts folder. You won’t see all of these published :-)

Start Writing

Next comes the hard part, the part that most of you will not do. But this is the part that makes you a better writer, and over time you will become better.

You have to write. You have to do the work, the big work even, and put in time every single day to write.

I try to write at LEAST 250 words a day. Even if what is coming out is crap, I still write. This is for multiple reasons:

- At least you are practicing. Every professional has a bad day at their craft. Basketball players shoot terribly from the floor. Day traders make bad trades. Skiers crash. Marketers get sites penalized. But you’re practicing and learning and getting better.
- You never know when an idea is going to take off and you’ll get into the writing mood. I’ve often sat down late at night to write out my words for that day and ended up writing for hours and publishing a long post the next day, or at least handing it off to a trusted friend to be read.

Get Feedback From Friends

This last one is really important. A lot of us will write in a vacuum, which is fine, but I always like to get a second pair of eyes on a post when I can. And actually, when you look at my posts that have done the best online, both on this site and other sites I write on like Moz and Distilled, they have all been looked over by others.

I’ll often get someone like Tom Critchlow to read a post, or I’ll bounce a post idea off of Mike King or one of my coworkers. All of our posts that go live on the Distilled blog are read by at least one person, and often multiple, on our QA email list that has 6-7 consultants on it. Every post that goes live on Moz is both read and edited by one of their editors. This quality control, while it annoyed me initially, has actually come to make me a better writer and helps me to see where I am missing an important point.

Edit Other People’s Work

This leads me to another quick point – be that person for someone else. Provide feedback to others, because this makes you learn to read critically as well. Don’t just look for grammar and punctuation (though by all means, do look for it), but also think “Does this post actually fit the thesis of the article? Does the article even have a thesis??” I also like to think what I would do if I were them writing the post, and then I’ll provide that feedback with that caveat. They can take it or leave it, but more often than not it’s a good suggestion.

Measure

Final point. When you’re writing, measure the effectiveness of your posts. This means that you need to determine why you are writing in the first place. For me, I look at -

- Links over time
- Social shares that day and the next
- Comments

These three, I have found, are the best KPI’s for the posts that I write. By looking at these numbers, you can determine what kind of content is resonating with your audience and what you should produce more (or less) of.

Protip – this is something you must do with a content strategy. Measurement is what keeps you meeting your audience’s needs.

For example, here is the tweet graph of my last 20 articles on this site. By doing this, I see that (ironically) SEO-focused posts don’t do as well. General marketing posts do a lot better:


How about you? Have you struggled to become a better writer? Have you worked at it? What’s worked for you?

John Doherty

Posts

I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

11 responses to Becoming A Better Writer

  1. Some great advice there. We recently had a client struggling to get her blog started again after a little but of time and my advice was for her was to simply start writing again first – never mind what it was about, even a daily diary. When you get into the swing of it, it’s much easier to then sit down and write about a focused topic.

    Thanks John!

    • That’s so very true Niamh. People have to start writing on a consistent basis, no matter how the post turns out. Attempt and practice is what makes one a good writer in the future and as John has mentioned it clearly – measuring, asking your friends to read also has a lot of impact on one’s writing. A feedback from a person whom you admire really makes lot of sense.

  2. Great post, John! “Ideas are like dreams – if you don’t write them down right after you have them… you lose it.” So true, and something I need to practice more often.

  3. I follow a similar approach.
    What I do differently is to use Word for drafts (obviously, having a great grammar and ortography corrector), to ask not Seo/marketers to read it (if they understand the concept of the post, good sign) and I leave always 48h of “rest” before writing the last version of the post (the best ideas pop up during that rest).

  4. Well thought out, John.

    If I can speak as someone who would consider themselves a writer, the two most important things you can do for your writing ability are the same as acquiring virtually any other skill:

    1. Practice. Constantly.
    2. Get unbiased feedback.

    Whether that feedback comes from friends, impartial people, a coach, a mentor – it should come from somebody unafraid to call you out on your faults and light you up for your mistakes while also fostering your ability and encouraging you where need be.

    Creativity and better ideas are all a part of it, but if you don’t practice or hone your skills with critical feedback, the best ideas in the world will fall flat on their face because you fail to communicate them properly.

    The last thing I’d recommend is to break boundaries. Step way outside of the norm, challenge what others are doing. Don’t look to history as a future predictor of success, don’t try to model your writing after somebody else who has already blazed a trail. Write what comes out of you naturally. Do something different. Challenge conventions.

    Part of the reason I’m called on to do writing is because I take risks with it. That’s become my niche; that’s what brings in projects. Find what you write exceptionally well and water it like a little literary plant.

    Good piece – nice to see someone trying to attach tangible process to “create better content”.

  5. Great post, John! I completely agree on Evernote; it’s much better to use for organizing ideas than my old method of sending emails to myself. ;-)

    Reading a lot and critiquing other people’s writing are also great ways to improve your own writing; both are helpful for finding inspiration and tweaking your writing style. I like to have a lot of diversity in my reading too (different authors, different subject matter, etc). The memoir I just finished reading had really great vocabulary in it; multiple times I thought “I’ll have to use that word.” Anything can expand your horizons; it doesn’t have to pertain to your subject matter.

    For me, once I have the initial idea and want to start fleshing it out, I prefer pen and paper. I write as much as I can, let it sit for a while, and then over it with a highlighter. From there, everything falls together nicely on the screen. Well, most of the time. :-)

  6. I emailed this post to myself, so thanks for introducing me to Pocket.

    Noting down my ideas is always an issue for me, evernote being across platform should help. I’m not sure why I don’t use it for this already.

    I’m an avid fan of very old marketing/copy-writing books (copy- the core of advertising type of stuff). As such I usually just sit and stare at blank until I come up with something. Maybe I’ll try typing junk, I’m never short of that.

    Great post, as always.

  7. Mackenzie Fogelson January 12, 2013 at 12:55 am

    Hey John. This post holds a lot of value for me (at a perfect time). I like your idea about committing to writing every day, but for me I resonate with a time frame more than words. I guess that’s because I can grasp that easier and it’s something I can carve out vs. not knowing how long it would take me to write, say, 250 words.

    I love your thought about blowing it and your thought about: “But you’re practicing and learning and getting better.” I’m pretty hard on myself and of course demand really high quality in everything I do. I’m also afraid to make mistakes publicly (but being transparent so I can get better about surrendering to that). I just really like the thought about the fact that you’ll never know it all but as long as you’re always learning and applying that knowledge, there’s no shame in that.

    Thanks for the post John.

  8. I’ve just started blogging and was looking for this kind of suggestions. This will surely gonna help me in my writing.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Marketing Day Recap: January 10, 2013 - WEBHUCKSTERGROUP.COM - January 13, 2013

    [...] Becoming A Better Writer, http://www.johnfdoherty.com [...]

  2. Marketing Day: January 10, 2013 - January 14, 2013

    [...] Becoming A Better Writer, http://www.johnfdoherty.com [...]