I am not a professional writer. I used to publish a magazine, which had me writing a number of articles under various pen names when I couldn't get enough content. I've written a book, a masters thesis, a couple thousand blog posts, and half a dozen magazine articles. My total compensation, how I personally measure "professional" versus amateur, is less than $10K. However, the advantages I've received from being a half way decent writer are incalculable in my professional life, or lives as they were. Here are some tips:
- Use bullet points. It's a way to gather your thoughts without formal writing structure. It's lazy and easy. If you want to write something people will read, that's a bit "click baity" as the kids would say, include your bullet points in the title. Nine steps to better amateur writing. It's a magazine writing trick for content creation.
- Start simple. If you don't know how to write well, start with something simple like the five paragraph essay with five sentence paragraphs. If you can master this discipline, my bet is you'll write something tight and well reasoned. It's much harder than what I tend to do, but oh can it be a beautiful thing. Also consider writing in a more journalistic style, with the most important content in the front and less important stuff towards the end. Hit the facts of who, what, when, where, why, how and voila! I was the feature editor of my high school paper and slamming out these kinds of articles on a deadline was pretty easy.
- Writing can be awful. The process can be awful, especially if you're writing for someone else or writing with a deadline. Everyone starts writing in school, which means assignments and deadlines and stress. If you're an amateur, you shouldn't see a lot of deadlines. I find it satisfying and relaxing, provided I know what I want to say and nobody is forcing me to write it.
- Popularity results in discipline. If you're writing for yourself and half a dozen people, you're less likely to worry about structure. You'll be somewhat self indulgent, like some annual letter you send to your family. Nobody cares if it's a paragraph or five pages. You'll probably not develop as fast as a writer because you won't get much feedback. Just keep that in mind.
- Less is more. It's true that what you cut out is often as important as what you include. Again, if nobody is reading your writing, it's easy to write too much, because there's no argument to win or point to get across. At a certain point you can write anything to any level of depth and you need to start thinking about your audience. My most popular posts are often the shortest, but popularity isn't everything.
- Your voice. Some say your writing should sound like how you speak. I don't know about "should" but I think this naturally occurs over time. I went from being an alright, high school level writer, to becoming a beaten down academic writer. I had to learn to write academically, formally, to get through grad school. Then I had to "unlearn" academic writing, which is too formal and standoffish for most people. This unlearning is where my voice as a writer developed. I'm not a great speaker, so you get what you get.
- Practice, practice, practice. My writing has improved over a very long time. I hope it continues to improve. I cringe when I look back on my early blog writings, when I was weaning off academia. Again, it helps to have a topic popular enough to get feedback on your writing. Writing in an echo chamber is a slow path to better writing.
- Get an Editor. My book is super clean and well written, because I had a team of editors. They pushed back on a few content points, but mostly it was cleaning up my writing. I want to be the writer I sound like in my book. I also have after the fact editors, like my friend Kent, who reads my stuff and points out my mistakes. I might self publish in the future, but an editor would be contracted.
- Revision. For online writing, I write a paragraph, re-read it, and since I don't have an editor, I'll get some coffee and come back and read it again with fresh eyes. I'll often edit a bit further at that point, but usually just a word or two. It's cheap writing to go with the free price tag and I'll admit it's written and edited to that price point.
That's it! Keep writing and you'll slowly improve. Don't attempt to jazz up your work with fancy words. Write simply and clearly and if you've written something halfway interesting, you should start to receive valuable feedback. I hope this coming from an amateur is useful. If not, seek professional help.
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