Part of my job is to make words sing. Words on blogs, websites, you name it. Usually, this means taking other people’s writing, chopping it up, juggling it around, and tossing it back on the page (or screen, more often) so it sounds its very best.
The meaning of the message doesn’t change in this process. But the power of the message is amplified, because the language is supporting the point rather than getting in its way.
This is a creative process, which means that the word “process” is somewhat inappropriate to begin with, because the path to perfect is never quite the same. Sometimes it involves a lot of standing up, sitting down, lounging on the floor with my roving white board, or walking in circles around my office. Sometimes it requires help from my wardrobe of very silly thinking hats. And sometimes – most of the time, thankfully – it just flows.
“Flows?” you ask. “Now that sounds good. (After all, my thinking-hat wardrobe is a bit outdated.) So how do you get to the flow zone?”
Enter my 5 (rather unconventional) writing tips:
1. Write without thinking
Don’t think about grammar, punctuation, organization – don’t even worry about whether it makes sense. Just get the thought down stream-of-consciousness style, without letting yourself get in your own way.
In fact, I’ve been known to close my eyes as I’m writing out a juicy thought, so that nothing – not even the words I’m drafting – can distract me from getting the idea expressed.
Yes, this is step #2. Because it involves thinking about how you will express your idea, and we never want that pesky how question to get in the way at the outset.
But once you’ve got the concept scribbled down, outlining is a powerful instrument in the writer’s symphony for 2 main reasons:
- It creates a framework for the thoughts you want to communicate, so you can define a clear structure & hit all your key points
- It gives you a box to play in, so you’re less likely to meander off topic
Yes, there are times when an outline might come first – like when you’re writing under deadline rather than impulse. But even in those cases, you might find yourself suddenly inspired as you get your notes structured, at which point you should stop outlining and return to step #1, stat.
3. Copy, Paste, Write, Erase
At this point, you’ll probably be looking at
- A big chunk of inspired mishmash that’s as brilliant as it is disjointed, and
- An outline that draws attention to all the stuff you still need to write
So roll your sleeves up.
First, copy and paste pieces of your mishmash throughout the outline, wherever each thought fits best.
Then, fill in the holes.
Now run through the whole thing and find ways to tie your thoughts together. This could happen very organically, but in some places, you might need to get creative. Don’t be afraid to tie in some of those good, old-fashioned transitions you got schooled on in 11th grade.
The categories you created in outlining might become your section headers, but a lot could change as you flesh things out (and think about SEO, wherever necessary). Go with your gut.
And if you’re ever hesitant about a revision you’re making, just keep both (or all 16) versions until you get to the right one. You’ll know when you’re there.
Remember, in the world of business writing, the goal is not beauty. It’s copy that’s clear and compelling. So don’t try to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. Make your writing simple and concrete, so that the message gets the attention rather than the words.
Once you have everything down, it’s time to read back through and start erasing stuff. Probably lots of stuff.
4. Go away.
Now walk away. This is one of the most important steps in the whole process, 2nd only to tip #5, below.
Set down that piece of paper. Close your computer. Go to lunch. Call a friend. Practice cartwheels in the backyard. Whatever it takes to get you away from what you just wrote for an hour, an afternoon, a day if you’re lucky.
The point is to try to forget about it completely, and come back with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed at what you see.
5. Read out loud
If you want your writing to sing, you absolutely must read it out loud.
Even if you have no musical training whatsoever, you can probably tell that something’s not quite right when you hear a singer who’s way off key or listen to a band whose drummer gets out of rhythm.
Same with writing. If you speak the language that you’re writing in with absolute fluency, then your ear will hear things that are out of “tune.” So read out loud. And try to detach your eyes and mouth from your ears when you do so – try to listen to the words in the air as if you were hearing them from another source.
It sounds trickier than it is. But if you don’t think you’re up to it, just record your voice as you read, and then tune in. You’ll learn fast enough.
Your ears won’t lie. Just listen for the music.