PTBA Blog

What’s the Point in Learning to Write Better?

  • By Guest Author
  • July 3, 2013
  • Category Writing

Guest post by PTBA member Mike Sowden

 

Ask a journalist, a novelist or someone who makes a living from selling their words, and they’ll probably start by waving their hands around while frothing at the mouth. “But, but…?” they’ll gibber, as if you’re suggesting the world is flat or that fun should be taxed. It’s not a question a professional writer will think up on their own, because in their mind, it’s a dumb thing to say.

 

It’s also deceptively tricky to answer.

 

If you’re a blogger or website owner, there are plenty of things you can prioritize above learning to write. The best online writing in the world is dead in the water if nobody is aware it’s there. Internet click-culture is highly visual, so if your site’s design is like a disco at an abattoir, it doesn’t matter what you write on it – people will quietly throw up over themselves and then leave, never to return. There’s SEO and having the right keywords to climb the search engine ladder to get noticed. There’s video, audio, and there’s accusing a major company of stealing your brand. All these things will certainly help you get new readers.

 

But…writing? Once the writing is up to a certain level of basic competence, you’re not going to get more readers by improving it, surely – it’s what you say, not how you say it, right? And your RSS numbers aren’t going to take a hammering because you end a sentence with a proposition or split your infinitives like Gene Rodenberry on acid?

 

It’s a stereotype that writers from so-called traditional media are more prone to getting sniffy about writing quality, while writers lacking that background play it faster and looser. Take spelling. Lift a newspaper writer out of the 1980s and drop them into the average cute-animal-driven article on BuzzFeed and they’d either think English had been replaced with a new language or that the world’s average IQ had recently dropped off a cliff. Verbal emoticons, LOLcat-speak and language formerly consigned to gaming nerds – they are now part of the mainstream lexicon of the Internet. The way we communicate is in flux – so why learn the old rules?

 

For me, the answer to this is all about what good writing *is*.

 

Good writing isn’t about deliberately being “deep”, ie. hard to read. It’s not about being long-winded. It’s not about using clever, florid metaphors that are as annoying as….something *really annoying*. It’s not about being impenetrable and only understood by the Special Few. Good writing is length-independent. Ever read a few of the links at Longreads.com or Byliner? It’s easy to think “holy crap, 9,500 words, that’s going to be a long haul” – and as soon as you start reading, you understand how tightly written it is, and how suddenly 9,500 words is *just* enough. Good writing is simple and clear and fun and enormously memorable, and it doesn’t dick around or outstay its welcome. It gets straight to the point, using the most interesting route the author can think of. That’s half of what makes writing “good”.

 

The other half is about how well it’s understood. So since that’s 90% of effective, successful blogging, let’s talk about that.

 

GOOD WRITING MAKES READERS FEEL IT. For something to be really memorable, it has to land the reader right in it. If it’s a How To post, it makes the reader imagine they could have a go as well. If it’s a sales page, it needs to convince someone they can’t live without what is being offered. Whatever form the writing is in, it needs to make the reader feel something – material lust, longing to be elsewhere, outraged, part of something bigger – for them to act on it. And “feel”? That’s a word meaning “emotions”. Good writing evokes an emotional response in a reader – and that usually involves the writer putting their own emotions into what they’re writing about. This is why “write about what you care about” is terrific advice – and why painting a story with language, really pulling someone into your head so they’re looking out through your eyes, is such an effective writing tool in both art and business.

 

GOOD WRITING IS QUOTABLE. Imagine if Mark Twain could have seen the future. He’d have been bewildered by Twitter. “Why in tarnation are they a-quoting me all the time? And I DIDN’T SAY THAT, DAGNABBIT!” Mark Twain was a master of the one-liner, and luckily for his immortal posterity, most of those lines came in at under 140 characters. Good writing is the ability to edit the bejayzus out of your words until all that’s left is what you *mean*. Over the last year I’ve been speaking at travel conferences about the power of good storytelling (which isn’t the same thing as good writing, despite some overlap) – and part of the message I’ve tried to convey is that stories are content delivery systems attuned to the way our brains are built. My slightly flippant way of saying this is “Storytelling is SEO for human brains” – and this is the no.1 thing that gets retweeted and otherwise distributed out over social media while I’m speaking. I make no claims to originality here – it’s riffing off an article in the New York Times by Annie Murphy Paul called “This Is Your Brain On Fiction”, which itself alludes to a 1987 narcotics campaign in the US called “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” – and THAT is ripping off earlier slogans. Good writing – it’s also about stealing stuff (carefully and transparently).

 

GOOD WRITING SOUNDS LIKE ITS AUTHOR IN REAL LIFE. Ever met a blogger in in real life and listened to them speak, and laughed because they sound *exactly the same as their blog*? That’s a sign they’re starting to really nail it. Blogging is a medium that rewards a strong authorial voice, usually an informal one. If your writing always sounds like it came from you, it’s effortless branding. It’s like your words are watermarked. However, this is a tricky process, requiring a lot of bravery, experience and alcohol. It’s also something that improves with practice but can diminish when you’re tired or away from the computer for too long. If you’re a freelance writer, you have to muffle your voice to suit the publication you’re writing for. Bloggers, and other self-publishers, have no such constraints. All they have to do is learn to speak their mind without the words getting in the way – and that’s the ideal reading experience as well. The mark of a superb piece of writing is one where the reader is barely aware of the words themselves, so smooth and effortless is their reading experience.

 

OKAY – HOW?

 

How can you improve your writing? The cheapest way is to have spent the last 30 years reading anything you can get your hands on. If for practical reasons this is a problem, the second cheapest way is to get accustomed to reading widely and unusually. Writing skill is a mixture of technique and experience, and you can get the former by reading things you’re unaccustomed to, reading them carefully until you can really see what the writer is doing (or failing to do). Read the New Yorker and Gawker and Medium and The Oatmeal and the Paris Review and The Onion and Roads & Kingdoms and McSweeney’s. Read anything and everything until the ideas are boiling up the sides of your brain like a flashmob of zombies. (Sorry for that image, but it may feel like that if you’re doing it right).

 

Alternately, get help. Get a writing or storytelling mentor (I did this, and now I’m doing it for other people – it really speeds things up). Undertake a training course in a style of writing that will help you, be it journalism, travel writing or something else. Work through some How To Write or How To Tell Stories books – ones that deal with practical concerns and don’t wander too far into Channeling The Great Throbbing Beauty Of The Universe and similar over-metaphysical giblets. Avoid that kind of stuff. Look for people who can explore Big Ideas while keeping it practical and real.

 

And overlying all of that? The best way – and indeed the only way – to improve your writing  is to sit down as often as you can, and try your damndest to write exactly what you’re thinking in a way that sounds like it’s you saying it. That’s it. It’s a lifetime’s work, but if you want to run a blog or write books or communicate to other human beings in any other way, it’s work that will give you the tools you need to succeed.

 

Go be yourself.

 

About the Author:  Mike Sowden is a freelance writer and storytelling consultant, rather loosely based in the north of England. When they’ll let him, he writes for Gadling and CNN Travel, and blogs erratically at Fevered Mutterings. He is *not* on the run from the CIA for selling their secrets, which is an example of the importance of good spelling (NO “N”, GUYS). On Twitter, he’s known as @Mikeachim.


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The views in this post represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the PTBA or its Board of Directors.

6 Responses to What’s the Point in Learning to Write Better?

  1. T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries July 3, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    I think it’s also important to ensure that you have a good story to tell, one that focuses on people, culture and history as opposed to just cutesy photos of your food/adventure activities while completely bypassing the cultural value of the destinations we travel bloggers/writers are exploring.

    Everything else is, as Stephen King said, simply a matter of day in, day out, honing your craft.

    Good list of basic info!

  2. Runaway Jane July 3, 2013 at 11:01 pm #

    Mike for President! (Note: Of the world, not of the PTBA I should clarify!) 🙂

  3. Cassie July 9, 2013 at 12:03 am #

    Really valuable advice, thank you for sharing it again. Since TBEX this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to improve my writing and develop my voice. The problem is, in doing so, I’ve developed a pretty serious case of writer’s block. While I previously had a lot of ideas of things to write about, this new dedication to telling an interesting story in an interesting way has me feeling that nothing I have to say is sufficiently interesting nor unique. I know I need to push through it to some extent, and that the act of writing will help me become a better writer, but do you have any tips for this interim balancing act of turning stuff out while at the same time improving the quality?

    Also, what books on writing would you recommend?

  4. http://seahorizon.org July 27, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    Hmm it seems like your blog ate my first comment (it was super long)
    so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any points for beginner blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate
    it.

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