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Writing well: Words of wisdom from my writing mentors

I write often. I write for work. I write this blog. I write speeches for the keynotes I deliver.

Recently I wrote a blog called ‘Why Write’. Long form content is rare, and I hope I convinced you to give it a shot.

 

Today, I want to help you write well.

There are more words than ever in the world. There are around 148m books in the world. 300 billion emails are sent every day. There are 600 million blog websites globally.

With these statistics it may seem impossible to stand out, but the opposite is true. Very, very, very few people write well.

I hope this blog helps you to become one of those few.

 

Over the course of my life, many people have helped me become a better writer. I won’t share their names, but I will share their wisdom.

Here is how I learnt to write well…

 

Argue the uncommon opinion

In my first year of high school, I told my English teacher her assignment was dumb. Not my finest moment (although I maintain that it was a stupid assignment).

In my final year of high school, I got assigned to the same teacher.

Unfortunately she remembered me.

To help her students get the highest marks, she advised us what to argue for every essay topic, and then helped the class come up with examples for that argument. To give her credit, she worked hard to help the class do well.

But as a teenager, I couldn’t stand to agree with someone that I couldn’t stand. So for an entire year, in the most important year of my schooling, I argued the exact opposite of what she advised in EVERY. SINGLE. ESSAY.

At one point I found myself arguing that even the most altruistic characters in the novel were still selfish, because they got a sense of moral superiority from helping others.

Perhaps I took things a little far with my contrariness.

At the end of the year, my teacher watched me walk across stage to accept the award for top performing student in the school for English, and a perfect score in exams. She was probably just glad that she’d never have me in her classroom again!

 

It’s a lot more work to argue the uncommon opinion, but it’s worth it.

It makes you think far more deeply about a topic. It makes you rethink your own opinions. And it makes you stand out, rather than being just another voice on a done-to-death topic.

 

Start with a bang

If you’ve ever watched an action movie this one should be obvious to you. The movie never starts with the secret agent getting out of bed, making toast, driving to work, and making small talk with their co-workers.

Yawn.

The movie starts with the screech of tires as the secret agent steers their car with their foot, whilst climbing through the sunroof, shooting left-handed at the bad guys behind them, and getting ready to leap across to the car next them which is also travelling at 150km an hour.

Within seconds of the movie starting your heart is pounding. You’re certainly paying attention.

Writing is the same. Start with a bang. Start in the middle of the high speed car chase, the tense conversation, the high stakes meeting. Start with something that makes the reader sit up and pay attention.

 

Here are a few techniques for doing this:

  • Use a sound (‘Bang. It sounded like a gunshot. I had snapped my achilles tendon.’)
  • Use dialogue (‘But we can’t deliver that.’ I said. ‘Can’t?’ the CEO said and glared at us.’)
  • Ask a question (Have you ever jumped on a trampoline? Yes? How high did you get? 1 meter? Two? Imagine jumping ten meters high, and then turning a triple somersault. That is the sport of trampolining.)
  • Use a stunning fact (If you can stay alive for the next 20 years, you may never die. Health technology is improving that fast)
  • State something that seems totally wrong (Altruistic people are selfish)
  • Start mid-action (Sweat dripped into my eyes. I couldn’t hear the crowd over the sound of my breathing. Just one more lift I thought to myself. One more to win. I wrapped my hands around the barbell, took a breath, and…)

 

Creativity comes from the combination of ideas

When you think of an artist, we often imagine a creative genius plucking ideas out of thin air and turning them into masterpieces.

We couldn’t be more wrong. Creativity comes from the combination of ideas in new ways.

William Inge, an English author said it best: ‘Originality is undetected plagiarism.’

This is great news, as it means everyone can be creative. All you need is a lot of other peoples’ ideas (easy to get from reading, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries etc), and the discipline to practice combining those ideas in new ways.

 

There are three ways to come up with something creative.

1. Combinational creativity – put two seemingly unrelated things together, and then think through how they could be connected. Some genius put a fork and a spoon together and invented the spork. Someone pushed economics and psychology together and created behavioural economics – the combination of two disparate fields of study. Harry Potter is boarding schools plus magic.

2. Exploratory creativity – this is re-examining known facts and assumptions to try and come up with creative alternatives. Basically, be like a 5 year old kid and ask ‘why’ over and over and over again. It’s Einstein asking ‘why does an apple fall’ when he was hit on the head whilst napping under a tree. It’s the AirBnb founders asking ‘why can’t there be a cheaper place to sleep when travelling than a hotel?’

3. Transformational creativity – ignore fundamental rules to come up with potentially impossible, but definitely creative ideas. Instead of asking ‘why can’t there be a cheaper place to sleep’ it’s more like asking ‘What if we didn’t have to sleep at all?’

 

In all of these cases you are starting with something known, and building or combining ideas from there. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Creativity comes from combining ideas in new ways.

 

Insert your own story

We are convinced by logic. We are impressed with facts. We engage with opinions.

But we remember stories.

Neuroscience has shown that emotion makes memories stronger. You can’t remember what you had for lunch last week, but you can remember in vivid detail the time you felt guilty for breaking a window when you were 7.

As a writer, it is stories that drive emotion. And emotion that makes your work memorable.

Watch any TED talk and I guarantee the speaker spends 30-50% of the time telling their personal story. They are there to educate, and yet they spend a huge chunk of their precious 18 minutes telling us their story. Because we remember stories.

Particularly in Australia, we are taught to downplay our stories. After all, we chop down tall poppies in the land down-under.

For the truly important things you write about, you need to bring your own story into it if you want your message to be remembered.

‘Writing well means you never have to say ‘I guess you had to be there.’’ ~ Jef Mallett

When you do use your story, just remember…

 

Don’t be the hero of your story

As an athlete, I always struggled to tell my story. I’ve done some incredible things on the world sporting stage, but I always felt egotistical trying to share these stories. When you hear athletes tell their stories, even people you know are incredibly humble can come across as arrogant. It goes like this:

I was talented.

Then I worked hard.

And I faced these obstacles, but I overcame them.

Then I won!

And I was so happy.

And of course thanks to my coach and team.

 

The best advice I’ve heard to tell your story without sounding like an egotistical ass is this: Don’t be the hero of your own story.

Here’s an example from one of my keynote speeches where I tell the story of my first World Trampoline Championships. As national champion I’d earnt my spot on the Australian team. But then my parents came home.

‘We need to talk,’ said my dad.

‘Sit down Christie.’ My mum chimed in as well. My dad cleared his throat.

‘I lost my job.’ He looked at my mum. Back at me. ‘And now… we can’t afford to send you to Europe to compete. We’re really sorry.’

 

I called my grandma in tears.

‘Back in my day, kids younger than you had jobs,’ she said it without a trace of sympathy in her voice. ‘I love you, good luck.’ And she promptly hung up on me.

That afternoon, I walked down to my local shopping centre clutching a fistful of resumes that had almost nothing written on them, and asked businesses to break the law.

 

‘Do you have any job openings?’ I would ask

‘How old are you?’ I got back

‘14, but…’ the door would slam in my face. The legal age for employment was 15.

Slam. Slam. Slam. Sometimes with a ‘sorry kid’ thrown out in parting.

 

Until I found a single café owner who would hear me out.

‘You’ll have to stay in the back, I can’t have you serving customers’ he told me

‘Ok. I’ll do anything.’

 

‘Anything’ turned out to be washing dishes for 4 hours, three times a week, for $7 an hour. For a year. But I got the money to go to Europe and compete.

The day I left, my grandma handed me an extra $100 – a fortune when you earning $7 an hour – with a wink.

‘For spending money’ she said.

 

When sharing how you overcame your challenges, include how a mentor, coach, friend or parent (or in my case grandparent) helped you. Let them be the hero of your story. It doesn’t diminish your achievements. It makes you sound like a real human. If your audience can relate to you, they’ll listen to you.

 

Dialogue makes it real

My mum is known for this. She has had 25 books published and almost a third of what she writes is dialogue. Dialogue shows us what is happening, rather then you telling us.

Which is more impactful?

 

Johnny doesn’t like parties.

OR

‘Let’s go out tonight?’ I begged

‘Not tonight, maybe another time,’ Johnny said.

‘You said that last week, I sighed. ‘And the week before that.’ I muttered under my breath.

‘I’m up to a really good part of my book,’ he said. He turned another page and his eyes went back to the words in front of him. End of conversation.

 

Jane is a flirt.

OR

‘Hey there handsome,’ Jane sidled up to the attractive guy at the bar. ‘I’ll have what you’re having’ she said with a wink.

 

Outside of books, hardly anyone uses dialogue in their writing. If you do, you’ll instantly stand out. It’s your secret weapon.

 

 

So what?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone, and felt that they were 3 leaps of logic ahead of you at all times?

That was my first manager. He was intimidatingly smart. I was fresh out of university, and knew nothing. Our conversations often went like this:

 

‘I’ve done all this work. Let me show you.’ I’d proceed to flip through a slide deck.

[Silence]

‘This analysis had all of these challenges.’

[Still silence]

‘So you can see that it’s a real problem…’

[Another long silence, during which my confidence to keep going would slowly dwindle]

‘So what?’ he would finally ask.

[Then more silence while I struggled to come up with an answer.]

 

Brutal. Especially for a 22 year old in her first real job. But very effective in teaching the lesson. Don’t bother picking up the pen to write if you don’t include the ‘so what’.

You can figure out your ‘so what’ by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience. What do they care about? Why are they reading your words? Entertainment, education, to make a decision? What do you want them to learn or do differently afterwards? If they described the takeaway of your work to a friend in one sentence, what would they say?

‘Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five – just one.’ ~ William Zinsser

 

 

Without structure, you aren’t a writer

I’m not a fan of journaling as a way to get better at writing. Journaling is mostly stream-of-consciousness writing. Putting every thought that passes through your head on paper.

It’s fantastic for decreasing stress and anxiety. It can be a useful source of ideas and brainstorming.

But your journal is not real writing. Because real writing always has structure.

Here are the most useful structures for writing online:

  • Narrative structure (a story from start to finish)
  • Circular structure (open and close on the same story or point)
  • Contrasting structure (swapping between opposing points of view, or different characters’ perspectives)
  • List structure (like this blog)
  • Pyramid structure (start with the key argument, then unpack the 3-5 supporting arguments, then the 3-5 supporting pieces of information under each of those)
  • If this, then that structure (lead your reader down a chain of logic)
  • Start with the ending (then tell the story of how you got there)

 

 

Bigger words are not better

At age 9 my dad got me started reading 1000 page fantasy novels. When the next book in the series was published, we used to fight over who would get to read it first (I think he let me win).

Most newspapers are written for a 14 year old comprehension level. Most books use even simpler language. The only reason most kids don’t read 1000 page fantasy novels is their attention span isn’t that long, not because they can’t understand them.

And yet, at school and at university, we forget this. Exams give you bonus points for using long words. Lecturers think you haven’t done your research if you don’t quote obscure scientists who try to make themselves sound smart by using multisyllabic words.

‘To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.’ ~ Aristotle

You have the choice to communicate with pretentious sentences like: ‘In order to have the utmost effect on a consumer of literature, the author must endeavour to use monosyllabic words aimed at preadolescent comprehension standards.’

Or you can make your point like a normal person: ‘The most impactful writing in the world uses simple words.’

Which do you prefer to read?

 

 

For f***’s sake… edit

For many people, writing is such a humungous task that as soon as they write the last word, they drop their pen in exhaustion. It’s first draft, only draft.

For good writers, the first draft means you are ALMOST halfway.

And this goes for ALL writing – a novel, a blog, a presentation, and a PowerPoint deck. One of my early managers used to send my slides back covered in so much red pen I could hardly identify what the slide had been to begin with.

Here are the three edits you must do for any piece of writing (and often you’d do each of these more than once).

 

1. Edit for structure

Start by taking your first draft, and cutting out half the words. Half. I’m not joking. As one author puts it this will feel like ‘killing your children’. But your words aren’t nearly as interesting as you think they are.

Then, read your work as though you were completely unfamiliar with the topic. Does it make sense? Do you have clear chapters and paragraphs. Do you spend the right amount of time on each of your key points?

This step can be hard to do yourself so ask a particularly honest friend to help.

 

2. Edit for impact

This is where you polish the craft of writing. Is each sentence the simplest way to get your point across? Do you use techniques like adding questions, short and long sentences, imagery, metaphors, stories and dialogue? Does your personality and enthusiasm for the topic shine through in your writing?

Basically, does your writing make your reader want to keep going?

‘Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find writing hard, it’s because it is hard.’ ~ William Zinsser

 

3. Edit for details

Finally you get to check the spelling, grammar and punctuation. If you don’t do this and just hit ‘publish’, you know a perfectionist reader will oh-so-helpfully point out your typo in the fourth sentence.

Two tips to get detail editing right if you are proofreading your own work.

First, read backwards.

Your brain has a natural tendency to read for meaning, and automatically skip over small errors and typos. This is magnified when it’s your own work. If you read backwards you can’t read for meaning, so your brain will pick up these errors.

Second, leave your work for a few days and come back to it fresh. When you’ve somewhat forgotten what you wrote you can read it like your perfectionist audience would – and you’ll catch those typos before they point them out to you.

(If you find an error in this blog, well… you know what I think about readers who point such insignificant things out!)

 

 

Final writing wisdom

To interact with the world you need the written word. To make an impact in the world, you need to write well. And very few people do.

My gratitude goes out to the people who taught me the lessons above. If you’ve read this far, thank you, and now it’s time to stop reading and start writing.

Write often. Write with purpose. Write in public.

Write well.

‘If people cannot write well, then they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, then others will do their thinking for them.’ ~ George Orwell

October 17, 2021