5 lessons I've learnt from writing professionally

5 lessons I've learnt from writing professionally

Posted by Toby Knott Picture of Toby Knott on 14 November 2013
Marketing copywriter specialising in writing about technology, marketing, branding, strategy and thought leadership for Articulate Marketing.

I have only been writing professionally for a few months but I've already learnt some valuable lessons about what it means to write for a living.

Writing professionally – magic it ain't

Good writing is our competitive advantage […] But it’s not creative voodoo. It’s work.

So reads Articulate Marketing’s writer’s guide.

To those who don't write for a living, good copywriting can seem mysterious, something they do. Something better left to arcane, wordy wizards. Admittedly, I came to this internship, now job, with similar ideas but the above dictum quickly hit home. Writing is work, and hard work at that.

Writing doesn't mean waiting around for the muse of writing or the 'light bulb moment'. These 'flashes' can certainly help with inspiration but writing, like all work, requires sitting down, concentrating and getting on with it. This isn't to demean good writing or writers; anyone can write but few can write well. But it's also unhelpful to deify good writing. Whilst having a natural aptitude for it helps, like any other skill, good writing takes practice and perseverance. All 10,000 hours of it.

Writer's block doesn't exist

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.

Terry Pratchett's right. There's no room for writer's block because it doesn't exist. Just because you're stuck doesn't mean you're 'blocked' or not working. This 'block', more often than not, is knowing what you want to say but not being able to find the right phrasing, so you need to distinguish between the writing phase and the editing phase.

Write a first draft, making a note of any sections you're unhappy with, and then go over it again after a while with an editor's eye. Trying to do both at the same time might seem more productive but it usually slows things up and leads to less objective editing. I don't subscribe to Hemingway's distinctive method of writing drunk and editing sober but he had the right idea in keeping the two separate.

Writers aren't tortured, solitary geniuses

Well, not tortured anyway.

As much as we like to think so, we're not tortured geniuses secreted away in ivory towers wreathed in tobacco smoke and we don't create work in isolation.

Good writing is collaborative. If it worked for Shakespeare, it works for me. Here at Articulate, everything gets peer reviewed so every piece gets a fresh pair of eyes and a few different approaches. Good editing is the keystone of good writing – just look at The Economist or the New Yorker. There's a heavy emphasis on rigorous editing and it shows; both publications consistently put out achingly good pieces. They understand how to craft excellent writing.

Writing isn't self-indulgent

Good writing, at least.

Good writing gets to the point fast. No throat clearing.

Coming into this job off the back of a history degree, my writing was verbose and flowery (nothing makes 17th century agrarian economy 'pop' like flowery language). I learnt very quickly that business writing is not an exercise in self-indulgence – you write for your audience, not yourself. Obvious as it might seem, it's a mistake that gets made time and time again. Business readers don't have time for anything more than the 'so what?' So get to it.

Writing's the easy bit

Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.

- Mark Twain

Whether it's a case study or an eBook, I find that the actual words come very quickly. The problem is research, collating material, finding the story/angle, fact checking and editing. A good writer wears many hats – writer, manager, interviewer, editor, researcher – and it takes all of them to produce effective, persuasive writing.

Writing professionally – the bottom line

No magic, no muses; writing is a job, pure and simple. But it's also fantastically rewarding work. Writing something that someone enjoys or finds insightful is genuinely satisfying. All the more so when you realise your labours are not the result of arbitrary 'creative voodoo.' With all of the myths out of the way, it's just you and the keyboard.

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(Hat tip to matryosha for the photo) 

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