If you’ve ever worked with writers, you’ve probably noticed that some of them need very little editing or coaching while others need a whole lot just to make sense of their work.
As someone who both writes and manages a writing team, I’ve often wondered why this is the case. Even writers who are great with words can turn out pieces that are difficult to read or completely miss the point of the assignment.
I decided to dig a little deeper as I edited my team’s work to find out what made the best writers so good – and here’s what I discovered.
There’s something great writers do that other writers don’t, and it has nothing to do with writing itself.
It’s not about grammar, length, or even word choice. Grammar and typos are actually the smallest part of editing .
Time and time again I found that the most talented writers didn’t just start writing from the get-go; they had a process in place for how they approached writing, even if it was an unconscious one. The writers who turned out the strongest work actually spent far less time writing than they did doing everything that comes before finger hits keyboard.
Great writers use a better process.
If you want to improve the quality of your work or get better quality work back from your contract writers, the secret lies in enforcing the process I’m about to share:
1. Know your objective
The foundation of your piece is the mission it’s trying to accomplish. I like to write out these questions and their answers to make sure I know exactly what I’m getting myself into:
Who are you writing to?
Who is the audience you’re trying to reach? How do they speak? What’s their reading level? What are their values? This question makes sure you’re tuned in to the right language, pain points and problems to be addressed.
Is the piece meant to instruct, inform or entertain?
This simple question has massive implications.
- Instructional pieces are usually more rigidly formatted, with sequential steps and lists taking the limelight. Information needs to prescribe a course of action – so a storytelling narrative will only get in the way if you’re not careful.
- Informational pieces can take the format of narrative storylines and don’t always need to ascribe to the same step-by-step formula of instructional pieces. Even so, it’s critical that one idea carries seamlessly to the next to connect the events or information in a way that’s easy to follow.
- Entertaining pieces can be liberal with format, layout, language and structure. As long as one thought flows logically into the next, there are fewer rules.
What’s the one key point you’re trying to make?
Make sure you’ve clearly defined your subject matter and put meaningful boundaries on it to avoid spiraling down a rabbit hole. For example, this piece isn’t about “copywriting”, it’s about the importance of a process in writing and how that separates great writers from mediocre ones.
I like to distill my pieces down into one tweetable: The heart and soul of the piece I need people to take away.
For this piece, it’s “The best writers have a process – and here it is.”
2. Do your research
You can’t write a convincing piece until you’ve turned over every last stone finding the information, data and stories that are going to make it compelling. In the research phase, your job is to compile as much information as possible.
- Read as much existing material on the topic as you feasibly can, gathering their best ideas and pieces of information.
- Treat it like a brain dump – Write down everything and anything that might help you build your case. Now is the time to collect; you’ll be cutting down later.
- Look for recurring patterns in ideas, as these are likely to become your cornerstone arguments.
- Collect citation info and track it carefully– you will need this information later when you’re citing your stats; proof of research makes your piece feel more credible.
I tend to do the research portion by hand, as it feels more concrete on a piece of paper than a screen and helps me internalize what I’m learning. Consider this a miniature school session: You’re first learning everything you can before you try to teach.
3. Organize your findings
Once you’ve done all the research and you’ve collected a mess of ideas, citations and concepts, it’s time to group similar research or ideas together into compelling arguments.
I like to use a numbering system, choosing a new unique number for each unique set of ideas, then filing all my ideas under the different numbers they support.
These are the heart of your narrative – the ideas you will present, backed by research to support them and a natural flow that helps them all to make sense.
4. Outline your piece
With your ideas organized you can now arrange the waypoints to get the reader from A to B.
This is a bit like map-making; when you know the starting point, ending point and all of the waypoints you want to cross through, you can chart out the best way to get from start to finish.
If you’re unsure what the natural flow is, make a list of all the questions a reader might be asking as they progress through the piece, starting from
“What is this thing?” to “Why should I care (what’s the impact to me)?” to “Why should I believe you?” and so on. Keep on asking “why”.
This is a CRUCIAL step because it ensures that someone external to yourself who has not done the research and is new to the idea (your audience) can follow along with your chain of reasoning to a logical conclusion.
Writers tend to infer that the reader knows what they know – and they don’t!
5. Write the darn thing
With your information organized, all you need to do is fill in the blanks. This is just about communicating your ideas clearly and in the right language; you’ve already covered off the structure that connects them, making your piece read clearly.
6. Edit without mercy
With your writing finished and your piece assembled, it’s time to look at it as a whole and determine:
- Has the objective of the piece been achieved?
- Can a reader naturally follow from one idea to another?
- Is there enough data to support each of my claims, or do I need to round them out?
- Does the reader leave knowing the answer to “So what?”
When you don’t do your legwork, it’s obvious.
If you’re one of those folks writing at the same time as you research and just sort of casually throwing together your piece – trust me, it shows.
My favorite writers to edit aren’t the ones with the biggest vocabularies or the juiciest prose – they’re the ones who can research well, organize their ideas and present them in a way that’s super easy and enjoyable to follow along.
If you want better writing from yourself, your team or your freelancers, start asking them to produce outlines. When you’ve got to show the reasoning behind the writing, everything changes.
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- What Do the Best Writers Do That Other Writers Don’t? - September 9, 2014