“Can anyone be a great writer?”
That’s what Robert Gerrish asked me during this podcast.
And my answer was “yes”.
But that “yes” does come with a big caveat.
We tend to think great writers are those who are able to sit down at their laptops, crack their knuckles, and then punch out perfectly formed, logically ordered, highly articulate thoughts on demand. In short, we think that initial laying down of words is the polished version we see from them in print.
But that’s not how it goes.
Every writer, good or great, starts with the same two things: an idea, and a dodgy first draft. It’s what comes after this – something called ‘the work’ – that separates the good from the great.
So what do YOU need in order to be a great writer? It’s both simple … and not!
You just need to care so deeply about the idea you’re trying to spread, you’re willing to do ‘the work’.
What does ‘the work’ look like?
Glad you asked. Here are some writing tips to help you.
Step 1: Write a dodgy first draft
As I alluded to above, many of us try to write perfect first drafts because we think that’s what great writers do. Most of the time, however, we (where we = any writer, no matter how awesome) need to get the crappy words out first in order to get to the good ones. The best way to do this is via a dodgy first draft. And the best way to write a dodgy first draft is to free-write.
Free-writing involves sitting down and simply getting words down on paper. Don’t edit as you go; don’t force the words to take a certain path. Just take the idea you have and let it be the catalyst for words pouring out on to the page. More than likely you’ll be surprised at what comes out. This is GREAT because if it’s ‘surprising’ to you, it’ll be interesting to your readers.
(Tip: I often free-write my dodgy first drafts longhand (ie pen on paper!) to stop myself editing as I go.)
Step 2: Ask yourself “what am I trying to say here?”
This step is simple: identify what your article is about on a surface level.
Step 3: Now ask yourself, “what am I REALLY trying to say here?”
When I finished the first draft of this piece you’re reading now, the answer to “what am I trying to say here?” was “hey people, this is how you edit an article.”
Here’s the problem. Relatively few people think:
“Gee I wish I knew how to edit better.”
A more common thought is this one:
“I wish I knew how to inspire people to take action.”
So THAT’S what this piece (this one you’re reading) is really about. Showing you, the reader, how to use words to inspire people to take action.
Step 4: The edit/re-write
Now we know what our article is REALLY about, we can get busy putting a red pen through anything that does not take the reader there.
And trust me, I know just how much this bit hurts! I’ve put my red pen through more than 1000 words over the course of writing this particular piece! In fact, my entire first draft (with two very witty anecdotes) got chopped because none of those words took the reader closer to the point of this article.
But the good news is, even if you have to dump your whole first draft, the fact you’ve worked out what your article is really about means the new words will flow more easily.
Step 5: Let it sit for a while
Once that initial edit/re-write is done, you are now the proud owner of a super-sweet-second-draft. And it’s tempting at this point to think you’re done. Unfortunately not. This fifth step, if you’ve allowed time for it (and if your idea is important enough, then why wouldn’t you?) is critical.
Let the piece ‘sit for a while’ – I suggest a day or more once that second draft is complete. This will allow some magic to happen in the next bit of the process.
Step 6: The final edit
While you were letting your piece sit, you were also allowing it to marinate in your mind. And it’s likely you’ll have come up with better ways of saying certain parts of it. Now is the time to drop those ‘better ways’ into the piece. Your fresh eyes will also pick up any bits from the second draft that either don’t need to be there, or would benefit from a tiny bit more fleshing out.
This final step is the place where you get to really refine things and it’s where your piece will go from being ‘good enough’ to being ‘great’.
Gee that’s a lot of work. Is it worth it?
I agree. What I’ve described above IS a lot of work. And I’m not saying you have to do it for every single thing you write.
But if you do, you could find yourself in the same position as Elle Luna.
Elle ‘did the work’ and then watched as her idea was shared five million times over the course of two weeks. Her idea resonated so deeply it became a book and saw Elle invited to speak in some very cool places.
Now your idea might not go viral on quite that scale. But it’s still super-awesome to see your words inspiring action and effecting a positive change that wasn’t occurring before.
And it’s that chance to effect positive change – even if it’s ‘only’ in your corner of the world – that makes ‘doing the work’ infinitely ‘worth it’ if you ask me.