Time flies, but with New Year’s reflections and a recent career change, I realize I’ve been writing for newspapers, magazines and online venues for over 15 years now. Some of those years were non-productive but the “writing bug” has been insistent, something constantly at the back of my mind, even more so today now that I have my own writing website SEATravelZombie (now ErikTomrenWrites). Here are some of my best writing tips I’ve learned over the years. These are strictly writing tips; I’ll delve into SEO best practices, WordPress and website management in future posts.
Identify your Five W’s and One H
If you’ve ever taken an introductory News Writing or Journalism course the first thing they tell you is to identify the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of your story and put that to the very front of your content. Everything else is secondary. If you have background information, that should be moved to the very end. Have you ever compared multiple newspapers from the same day and noticed that a syndicated Associated Press article is sometimes longer in one newspaper than another? The reason why you see this is that the original article was purposefully written so that supplemental background information can be removed by individual newspapers depending on space concerns.
You may be thinking, what is the point? The Internet is limitless; I can write as much as I want and not run out of room. This is entirely true. You’re entirely welcome to post your 30-page Master’s thesis chronicling the 1893 coup of the Kingdom of Hawaii. But no one will read it. If you want people to read your content, the Five W’s and One H are just as important as they ever were, perhaps more so today. You have a very small window of time to capture people’s attention, and most of the time they won’t make it to your second paragraph. Following news writing standards also helps ensure that your writing will be found by Internet search engines, the art of search engine optimization (SEO), but that’s a topic for another time.
Coming from an academic background, where I needed to write long drawn-out essays, it took me a long time to get used to writing with more brevity and purpose. Even today, I find myself writing lengthy introduction paragraphs from time to time. Sometimes it’s a useful exercise, but just don’t use that material, or move it to the end or re-purpose it for another article later.
Don’t Throw Anything Away & Write When Inspiration Strikes
Which leads naturally to, don’t throw anything away. Any piece of text that you’ve written is now part of your writing portfolio. If you’ve written a perfect paragraph that just doesn’t fit with a particular piece, save it somewhere for future use. At any given time, I have a dozen different articles or ideas waiting in the wings, simmering on low boil for when the time is right.
Similarly, when you get new ideas jot them down immediately. There have been so many times when I’ve written whole articles in my head while on the bus or waiting for an appointment. Each time, without fail, when I put the words to paper, if I even bother to put words to paper, the result is lackluster. The success or failure of your article may depend on that perfectly worded intro sentence, and if you don’t write it down it’s lost forever. Nowadays, I try to have a laptop or notepad handy wherever I go.
Leave Social Media While You Write!
One of the biggest blessings to today’s writer is also his downfall. The Internet can save hours of research time, but it can also be a huge time suck. There have been whole days where I look at what I’ve accomplished and it’s almost nothing except updating my Facebook profile. Stay off the Internet when you write, even for research purposes. If I’m writing something that will need fact-checked later, or will need a hyperlink reference, I simply leave a note for myself that it will need a follow-up. If you do need to check in to your social media or your email here or there, set aside a break-time to do so, then return to the writing slog.
Learn & Use Style Guides
The so-called “bible” for those in the journalism profession is the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (AP Stylebook in short), a yearly guide that dictates standardized grammar, spelling and word usage. The AP Stylebook is an absolute requirement for news reporters, but it is widely used in a number of related fields such as marketing and public relations. My advice: buy the yearly guide, read it from front to back, then determine if you want to adhere to it in your writing or if you only want to use portions of the Stylebook. Also, depending on what type of writing you specialize in another style guide may be appropriate, such as the Chicago Manual of Style.
In any case, you need to know the rules of writing before you can break them. Perhaps your style is experimental in the vein of E.E. Cummings. You should still know your AP Stylebook inside and out and be ready to use that style if needed. AP guidelines are fundamental in many areas of writing and business and if you don’t know the rules you put yourself at a major competitive disadvantage. Also, using AP style, or close to it, will generally help give your writing a sense of legitimacy.
Write in Microsoft Word and Hit ‘Save’ Early and Often
One practice, I would say bad habit, that I would not recommend is writing articles directly in a web application and then publishing. There are a number of reasons why this is a terrible idea. For one, if your Internet connection is lost or if you accidentally close your browser window, your work will usually be wiped out. Additionally, if you are like most writers your first draft is simply that, a first draft that will need extensive editing.
There are times when having an article published first, quick and dirty, is appropriate. In that case, writing directly to a web application may be of use. But in most cases you have enough time to open a session of Microsoft Word, or similar word processing program, and write it there first. Be sure to save the file, though; if Microsoft Word crashes you are left with the same problem as writing in a web application.
Write, write, write! Then re-write!
“The first draft of anything is shit.” -Ernest Hemingway
Perhaps the most difficult part of writing is simply setting aside the time to write. It sounds so easy, but when you start at that blank computer screen or sheet of paper that first sentence just won’t come out. Then the second sentence won’t come out. To get the creative juices flowing try getting any idea on paper and then expanding. It doesn’t even need to be a sentence, just a couple words. If you are working on a complex idea write out an outline. Set aside a window of time to write each and every day and adhere to that schedule. The alternative is to lose months, even years, with little to show for it.
When you run out ideas, start writing about something else. Projects often need “breathing room,” and focusing on something different will help you gain perspective on the idea you set aside. When you are done writing your first draft, edit the hell out of it, then edit it again. No one writes well on the first draft. Have a trusted friend give you honest feedback about what needs to be changed. Often we are too close to a project to think critically about it.
Read as much as you can. Read fiction, non-fiction, the classics, the daily newspaper. It’s so true that good writing is often picked up by osmosis. Two books to help get in the writing mood are POP! Create the Perfect Pitch, Title and Tagline for Anything by Sam Horn (see my full review here) and Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley.
Appreciate that every writer before you has had the same struggles to overcome. Here is an inspirational list of quotes from famous writers of the past and present. There are countless articles and tips about how to become a better writer. Think about how your writing process and what works for you. Finally, remember that writing should be fun! If it stops being fun, take a step back and think about what you want to achieve with your writing. Perhaps your time and efforts would be better spent in another pursuit.
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(This article was written for LinkedIn Pulse under my LinkedIn profile. The original article can be found here.)
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