Writing Guide Part 1: Preparation
Just like in martial arts, before you can actually master the art of writing you have to prepare and understand the nature of the challenge you’re up against. A good place to start would be my earlier post about writing, although that one was specifically about writing for private reasons. As you know, the focus of this guide is improving your writing skills when writing for the public eye.
The spoken word is fleeting; the written word is permanent
Fundamentally speaking, writing is the process of capturing volatile thoughts and transforming them into a stable form. Your thoughts are anxiously and excitedly thrashing all over the place but you want to structure them into a tranquilized entity. They’re like young kids that haven’t learned to wait their turn and raise their hand when they want to talk, so they’re all chaotically talking over one another. Writing is the process of letting each kid raise her hand, wait her turn, and tell her story when it’s her turn. Reaching that point of mental stasis really is a beautiful aspect of writing.
To really understand writing, it’s important to recognize how it is fundamentally different from speaking. Speaking does not have an intermediary step (or obstacle) between your thoughts and the ‘delivered product.’ In general, you have a thought that you want to communicate and, well, you just say it – especially the case with people that don't think twice before they say something. Sure, you need to structure it grammatically and ensure that it makes basic sense, but in general there’s a low cost to converting the thought into the end-product (i.e. communicated words). To use an example, I personally understand a message far more easily from a shitty speaker than the exact same message from a shitty writer. It’s also far more common to hear “that person is a poor writer” than “that person is a poor talker/speaker” – and I don’t necessarily mean public speaking, just a general, everyday talker.
Writing on the other hand has a distinct intermediary obstacle which probably explains why people a) talk more than they write and b) aren’t that keen on writing a lot (sorry but I don’t count texting or instant messaging as actual writing). The process of actually typing the thoughts into existence is a far slower and more deliberate effort. When you’re talking, there are no backspaces, semi-colons, or commas. But when you’re writing you have to edit, proofread, edit some more, write some more, and so on. Nevertheless, it’s probably a good thing that speaking doesn’t involve this much “work” because I’m not sure we would get very far in our daily lives otherwise.
Writing is also quite a private affair. Even though people read your stuff – this guide is for writing for public eyes, after all – you’re generally not physically with them when they read it. Since it’s so private, it becomes a very mental and internal affair and this means that it’s crucial to master your mind in order to become a good writer. Again and again I come back to this issue of having authority over your mental state of mind because it really does affect every area of your life. We'll revisit this topic later on in the guide, but it’s good to keep it in mind right now (and consider practicing mindfulness as early as possible). From my experience, a calmer mind makes for a much more pleasant writing experience.
Learning from the best
Now that we’ve gone through that little preamble, it’s time to get to the core of this part of the guide. To be the best, you have to learn from the best, but I like to look at it differently. I once heard a great quote somewhere that said that in order to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader and in order to be a good speaker, you need to be a good listener. In terms of writing, you have to learn and understand each different writing style there is to master this skill. Therefore, your homework is to read 5-10 articles from the following sources:
- Academic (scientific) papers. Yeah, I know, this one probably doesn’t tickle your interest very much. Trust me though, it’s really useful and important. Just choose a subject that you’re interested and/or well-versed in. In my case it’s economics, but don’t worry because there are academic papers on absolutely everything: from bacterial science to the science of love and dating. It might be tricky to find free-to-read papers on Google Scholar, so you're going to have to be patient (or go to a library because they tend to have free licenses to read them).
- Blogs. You’re off to a good start here since you’re already reading my blog! Blogs are incredibly personal spheres for writers to express themselves in and, especially after the political turmoil of the last year or two, have become extremely interesting to read. Again, follow a blog with a topic that interests you (I suggest checking Medium for inspiration) and read a good dose of this person’s content.
- Sports. This is not just because I’m a big sports fan myself, but I’ve noticed that the style of writing for sports is noticeably different. Again, find a sport that you at least remotely care about so that you maintain some interest in what you’re reading. Examples: Eurosport, ESPN, Goal.com.
- Sub-category: sports blogs. From my experience, sports blogs have less formal restrictions compared to traditional sports websites. Because of that, the writers are generally freer to write from the heart. A great example of this is from one of my writing buddies at the Juventus SB Nation blog.
- Traditional news. You probably already do this anyway, so there’s not much need for elaboration here.
- Analytical news pieces. My personal favorite for this is The Economist and the 1843magazine because their most in-depth pieces really are fascinating to read. These kinds of articles focus less on the ‘what’ and far more on the ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘so what’.
- Novels. For this one, I think that especially fantasy-themed novels are fantastic because the genre basically demands a wonderfully rich and visually-descriptive style of writing. I cannot understate how useful it is to also master this type of “transport-your-mind-to-another-world” writing. You obviously don’t have to read 5-10 books for this one unless you really are that ambitious. (Note: For the purposes of this guide, reading fiction is probably good enough here, unless you feel like trying out non-fiction as well. It’s a nice bonus if you can get to it).
- Bonus: Poetry. A nice source of inspiration for various types of writing: witty, humorous, romantic, melancholic, and more. Poetry also teaches you how to skillfully play with words, punctuation, and sentence structure in order to get your message across in a creative range of ways.
Your task is not only to read this material but to really observe and take notes on the material as you’re reading it. Here are some questions that will guide and instruct you on what to take note of as you’re reading:
How long are the sentences? For example, academic papers (particularly in the field of law) tend to have more long-winded sentences with lots of commas. What does the length of the sentences do to your reading experience? Does it make it more pleasant or a total pain in the backside?
How does the writer make use of adjectives? Sports writing (and commentary) tends to use lots of specific adjectives because sport is such a visual and emotional experience. For example, I love phrases like “deft touch”, “mesmerizing play”, “elegant footwork”, and so on. Academic papers, on the other hand, are generally a bit more conservative in the use of adjectives, though this is a broad generalization and varies per field.
How vividly does the writer describe scenes? This follows closely from the previous point and is actually why I recommend reading fantasy-themed novels. The best novelists have this surreal ability to describe scenes in vivid and colorful ways.
How matter-of-fact is the content? Pay specific attention to news pieces and analytical news articles here. Examples: “the outcome of this is x” or “this equates to y” instead of “he feels like a” or “she seems to like b.”
What structure is used to build the writer’s arguments? For analytical news pieces and academic papers, it’s crucial to know how to coherently structure your argument in order to eventually make your point. This is slightly outside the scope of this guide though; you should probably take a course on how to improve your argumentative and logical reasoning skills for this purpose. I suggest doing some research on that front.
What about the grammar/spelling? A pet-peeve of mine so I should probably not be so strict on this. Blogs tend to be a bit laxer on the grammar and punctuation because they’re meant to be more conversational and personal, which is fine because this makes it feel more ‘human.’ Nevertheless, pay attention to the writers’ use of adverbs, commas, verb tenses like the subjunctive, and all that fun stuff.
Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day
So why am I giving you this seemingly tedious homework? I think it’s important to understand that, no matter who your audience is that you’re writing for, you have to have a distinct identity as a writer. This identity, however, doesn’t just come falling out of the sky and into your brain; you have to put in the work to create and foster it. A fundamental requirement to form this identity is to learn from, understand, and merge together the work of great writers from every area of the profession. Later on we’ll talk about then adding your personality to the mix, but let’s stick to the foundational work first.
A great analogy for this comes from my good ol’ favorite show Dragonball Z. One of the most interesting villains in that show was a guy named Cell. Long story short (and without giving too many spoilers), he was wickedly strong because he was a biologically-engineered creature that had the DNA of every single one of the strongest heroes in the show. This meant that he knew and could perform every one of the different heroes’ attacks, which were all radically different in nature, whenever the situation called for it. Similarly, to become a great writer you need to possess the “DNA” of each different writing style so that you are easily capable of using whichever one you need whenever the situation calls for it. Sometimes you’ll need or want to use a more poetic style, other times a more scientific style, and yet other times a more personal blogging style of writing to connect with your audience. Whatever the case, I'm sure you can get there by putting in the hard work.
Good luck and have fun!
See you, Space Cowboy.