Why you (yes, you) need to be a better writer (and how to get started)

More people need more content for more reasons, and that means that people are doing more writing.

Part of me thinks that’s really cool, because words! are! great! and I like that more people are using them and (one hopes) appreciating them.

Part of me weeps softly in the corner over my thesaurus and a well-worn copy of The Little, Brown Handbook.

Somewhere between the hundredth listicle and the thousandth “Did you know people do things? They do! You won’t believe what happens next!” title, the sad part of me took over. Now I’m a grumpy writer griping about the Oxford comma and conflicted about my own overuse of the word “just.”

If content isn’t “writing,” but is, I don’t know, “content,” then what are the rules for it? They aren’t the standard writing rules for, say, a book or a scholarly article or a well-researched piece of journalism. Those things take time, and thought, and editors.

Content has to move faster, get done faster, get produced faster.

But it doesn’t have to be terrible.

I love the content, I do

Maybe you’re a person who prefers Buzzfeed to books, but I bet you appreciate a well-turned sentence and appropriate adverb use. People who read content are people. People who read writing are people. Most of us are people who read both (and are people).

There’s plenty to appreciate about content, and the Internet that has brought this world of content into being. I appreciate the casual tone of blogging. I appreciate that I can self-publish a book and make sales without having to attend crappy, poorly attended conferences in crappy, poorly lit church basements. The middle-man removal is liberating, and I celebrate it.

I also want us to make better content. I want us to consume better content. I want us to demand better content.

How to make better content

Making better content means being better writers. That’s the part everyone gets ticky about. With the exception, perhaps, of extemporaneous Snapchat-style videos and image-only posts, all content starts with writing.

All of us who make content – video, podcast, infographic, blog post, article, so on – need to be better writers. But making content is both less and more than being good writers.

Making content is partially about being a good writer: the concept starts with writing, but it may end up somewhere very different. Or not. A blog post is an essay, but it’s an essay you plan, write, edit, proofread, format, and publish yourself. Maybe you also source images for it.

There are exceptions. Content teams in which the roles are assigned: someone writes, someone else edits, someone else does the graphics, someone else gets it all ready for publication. That’s the journalistic model moved to the Internet.

It’s a good model but it isn’t the only one. It isn’t even my favorite. I like the model that lets me control it all from start to finish. The DIY model. It’s liberating. It’s removed the cost and the barriers and made a lot of amazing things possible for a lot of people.

It’s also made a lot of terrible content possible.

My loyalties as a writer

I dislike that the do-it-yourself model often results in poorly written content. I’m a writer who makes content, as opposed to a content creator who writes. My loyalty is to the words, first and the Internet, second.

Well, no. That’s not quite true. My first loyalty is to learning; to asking questions and answering them, or trying to answer them. It’s mostly for myself.

My second loyalty is to the people who might benefit somehow from the questions and half-answers I’m chasing around with words.

My third loyalty is to the words. They are my tool of choice. They have served me well, even when I’ve treated them poorly.

My fourth loyalty is to the wide, wonderful web of the Inters, which gives me all sorts of access to information and research and books and other people and their learning, and all sorts of ways to share the words I’ve written with people who might want to read them.

How to make a better Internet

Writing for the Interwebs (with any success) means being proficient in using the tools and resources therein and, for best results, being a fast and good writer. A prolific writer. But not a prolific creator of crappy content. A prolific writer of good words which you can then convert into all sorts of content.

And it won’t be crappy content. It will be good content, if it comes from good words and if you do a halfway decent job of converting it to various and sundry Interweb-friendly forms.

We can have lots of different reasons for making content. And we can use content in lots of different ways. Whatever your reasons and uses, creating better content means creating a better Internet. And creating better content happens when you and I become better writers.

How to start being a better writer

The first way to become a better writer is to be a better reader. Don’t waste your time on crap content. Don’t share it to get a retweet, don’t comment on it to get a trackback, stop it. It’s crap, you know it’s crap, it’s not helping you and it’s not helping anyone else. It’s also creating patterns in your brain, recognition patterns, patterns that are teaching you what content is, what writing is, what it looks like, what it sounds like. You don’t want crap content creating those patterns. Why not? Um, because then when you decide to start writing so you can make your own content, you’ll make more terrible crap writing that you’ll turn into terrible crap writing and the Internet will be sadder and trashier because of it.

Don’t do that to the Internet. We all need it to work and to keep working.

The second way to become a better writer is to actually write. Every day. Daily. Once a day at least. All of the days in a row.

You don’t have to write very much. You’re busy and have plenty of other things to do (I get it, I like memes, too). There’s no required minimum for daily writing. How about as much as you can write in 5 minutes, or 10 minutes? How about a couple of paragraphs? You do a couple of paragraphs every day and every two or three days you’ll have a decent blog post. Wow! Content!

What’s even better is that if you do a couple of paragraphs every day, you’ll get better at paragraphs. Heck, you can even dial it back down to sentences if you want. Write 2 or 3 or 4 sentences each day. Focus in. Tighten up. Describe one thing well. Explain one concept clearly. Do that everyday and your writing will get better and better. You’ll also think clearer and have better conversations. Bonus. You’ll probably also feel less stressed out.

A secret about writing

You’ll probably also find yourself writing more than 2 or 3 sentences.

Writing is addictive.

This is the secret that “writers” won’t tell you. They complain and whine and moan about how difficult writing is (and it is, sometimes). They’ll tell you about deadlines and inspiration and writer’s block and word counts and editors (will they ever tell you about editors) but they won’t tell you about the magic. The addiction. The feel of it, when you know what you want to say and it’s percolated and simmered in your brain just long enough and you’re at the keyboard or the page and the words are flying and the coffee is hot and you’re in a little mind-groove of awesome and everything in the universe seems to align.

You’ll fall into that experience, along about day 10 or 12 or maybe 17 of writing every day. You’ll be thinking, “Ugh, why am I going to write these stupid sentences again. It’s probably not even helping me.” And you’ll think about not doing it today, but you’ll do it anyway, because you’re the kind of person who likes to give something a decent try, at least. And you’ll curse a little under your breath (or over it, who knows) and start stringing some stupid sentences together and then a thought will hit you and you’ll write it down and another thought and you’ll write it and then the thoughts and the writing are happening simultaneously, it seems, and you’re thinking and writing and you realize that you’re thinking through writing, the words are helping you think, you’re feeling this magic of seeing yourself create something you didn’t quite know you had in you.

That’s the magic of writing.

Of course, it doesn’t always feel that way.

But that’s okay, right? Because you’ll plug along and do that daily little bit of writing every day. Some days will be magic, somedays will be mundane, and all the days are valuable. Every day that you write helps you to become a better writer. A faster, tighter, cleaner, more focused writer.

You’ll be a better thinker, too. Because writing is thinking. Can you think? Then you can write. It’s thinking outside of your head in words anyone can see instead of thinking inside your head in words only you can hear. So if you can think, you can write. If you can write, you are thinking. As you become a better writer, your thinking becomes clearer and broader, more focused and more connected.

Writing is for everyone

Writing is not a specialized skill. It’s not reserved for academics and poets. Writing is a universal skill, a human skill, an important skill. It’s available for everyone. You can use it. You can be a better writer. It takes practice. That’s all. Practice, and reading good stuff.

So you’ll do this, and you’ll build up a little collection of writing and you can take that collection and do anything with it.

Make your content, in any sort of form. Turn it into a presentation or a video script or an ebook or a white paper or landing page or social media content or, you know, memes.

It’s up to you. There are your two steps: read better stuff and write every day. Do that for a while, then if you want to learn more about writing, there are plenty of ways to do that.

But that’s all extra. What you need to do to be a better writer you can do for free, on your own time, with your own tools and abilities as they stand. Read good stuff. Write every day. Why not start now?