Nowadays, we're often overridden with self-improvement plans, from 21-day diet plans to six-week courses that teach foreign languages. So why shouldn’t those of us who must create content for the gaping maw of the internet have our own shape-up plan for writing?
On the one hand, communicating is as human as breathing. Do you really need training for it? (Oh wait, isn't that what yoga is for?)
Still, there are plenty of “experts” who don’t think writing deserves much attention, such as former Indiana University Basketball Coach Bobby Knight, who once said, “All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.”
On the other hand, we have the many people who believe in the value of writing and the discipline of creating good writing. “I don't think writers are sacred, but words are,” playwright Tom Stoppard said. “They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.”
Wait a minute! Get the words in the right order? Nudge people to action? Isn’t that a bit like writing to drive search engine optimization, or creating calls to action? Does the man who brought us Shakespeare in Love actually “get” what those of us who must blog, post, and tweet do on a daily basis?
Writing doesn’t have to be hard -- not for you, and not for the people who will read what you write. So whether you come to this post having thought very little about your writing, or too much, here is a 28-day plan to help you improve your writing.
Don't try to write on day one. Here’s a simple exercise to get you started: Close your eyes. Imagine the most critical person who ever read what you wrote. Write that name down on a blank sheet of paper along with whatever hurtful thing that person said that sticks in your mind.
Now, take that paper and do one of the following: Crumple it up, burn it, cut it into a million pieces, feed the office shredder, or use it for target practice. The bottom line: Never let that critic live rent-free in your writer’s brain again. Now let that marinate.
Write a list of the top three reasons why you need to write. It could be an obligation (work!), or at the other end of the scale, a passion. Now, write another list of the top three reasons you like to write. That's it for the day.
Days 3 - 5
Take the list that means the most to you ("need to write" or "want to write"). Each day, write a free-form statement about one of your top three reasons to write from the list.
Now that you’ve got a clear sense of why YOU personally need or want to write, it’s time to start getting in shape. If you want to run a marathon, you need a training plan and it’s no less true for writing, regardless of what Bobby Knight says. Success in any physical endeavor requires consistent discipline in executing the training plan. The same is true for writing. This week, focus on developing discipline for your writing.
Settle yourself somewhere where you won’t be interrupted. Set a timer for 30 minutes. Write whatever you want about whatever subject comes to mind and go as long as you can. If you can’t make it to 30 minutes, that's okay -- but note it.
Rinse and repeat the exercise from Day 1. DO NOT read what you wrote on Day 1 (that’s the rinse part). Start with a clear mind. Again, see how long you can go and note it.
Settle yourself in a quiet place. Write the first thing that comes to mind, one sentence ideally, no more than one paragraph. Put it aside.
Settle yourself in a quiet place. Pull out what you wrote yesterday. Set your timer. Write on this topic for 30 minutes, straight from what’s in your head. (NO INTERNET SEARCHING!)
Review what you wrote on each day. Make an assessment of what you have to say and share with the world, as well as how long your personal constitution will allow you to sit in one place and write. This important information will shape the rest of your training plan.
Every person on this planet is a thinker. All of us must communicate to live. And thus, all of us can write. Now, it's time to build on your personal orientation toward writing. Regardless of where you started on this journey, if you’ve completed the exercises in the first two weeks, you’ve learned a lot about why you want or need to write and what prevents you from writing more (and more happily).
You’ve also learned what great content might be inside of you, and how easy it will be for you to access your brain and turn that content into writing. Here's your week 3 training plan.
Write down five things about your business or organization or passion that you find yourself telling people over and over again. Perhaps it's something that made you angry, or a fun story about what you do for work, or the most interesting topic you can teach, or a big "aha" moment.
Days 2 - 5
Revisit your list each succeeding day, pick a topic, and write about it for 30 minutes (or as long as your personal constitution will allow you to go).
Week 4 & Beyond
So here’s something we know about all those training and diet plans that have nothing to do with writing: The majority of people give up before they see the true benefit of the training. Gosh, I hope you’re not one of those! If you’re reading this now, you’re either reading to get an overview of the plan, or you really did the work to get here. Get excited: The payoff is right around the corner.
Our training program thus far has been more about learning about you and what you have to say than it's been about mechanics such as grammar. Really, the mechanics of writing are table stakes. In other words, those elements are to writing as breathing is to living -- you can’t have great, successful communication without them. Yet the mistake that far too many of us make is that when we consider our need to write, we focus on the breathing instead of the living.
The goal of our 28-day training program is to get you started on the rhythm of writing what YOU have to say. If you’ve reached the point in your career that you’ve decided you must write about what you do, then you have clearly convinced enough people that you have something to say; that you are, on one level or another, an expert at what you do.
This is what online writing and writing for inbound marketing is all about: Sharing the great thinking and content that is unique to you and what you do, whether you lead a nonprofit, are driving sales in the marketing department of a manufacturing company, or you’re a professional, such as a lawyer.
So here’s your training program for Week Four (and, really, for the rest of your writing life). Instead of daily tasks, let’s list these more as rules to live by. May your writing deliver the results you seek, and I hope to meet you on the broad highway called the internet, liking, retweeting and otherwise sharing the great writing you do. (And if you want a handy guide to writing concepts, check out our glossary of writing terms to help you write like the greats.)
Writing Rules to Live By
Write what you know, and what makes you passionate. Brainstorm. Develop lists of what you MIGHT write about, and pick those that make the most sense at the time. Save the rest for later.
Devote a set amount of time to your writing every week -- whatever your body and brain tell you is the right amount of time.
Be consistent in your writing and it will improve over the course of time.
Remember that writing is about advancing you and what you do as a thought leader. Dare to be an expert and share what you really believe.
Don’t let your critics live rent-free in your brain. They aren’t worth your time and if you let them inside, they will infect your thinking and writing, ultimately diminishing your success.
Your readers won’t be able to tell if you are writing because you have to or because you want to. As with any other kind of training, make the effort and be consistent and the results will be there!
How do you practice your writing? Share your tips with other readers in the comments below!
Originally published Sep 27, 2014 8:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017