Episode 42: Confessions from a Terrible Writer

Since content marketing is the most effective way to market a creative practice, writing has to become an essential business skill. But what if you’re a terrible writer? Or, perhaps, just lack the confidence to write? If you feel that way, you’re not alone. Most creatives struggle to express their ideas verbally. If you ever want to find an example of this, all you would need to do is get your hands on anything I wrote when I was just starting out in the creative business.

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One of my favorite movies is a Christmas Story where Peter Billingsly plays Ralphie, a twelve year old boy hoping that Christmas this year will deliver him an “official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.” When his teacher gives his class a writing assignment on the theme of what they want for Christmas—Ralph seizes the opportunity to craft the perfect argument for getting his BB gun. After handing in his masterpiece he daydreams of how his teacher will gush over his brilliance. A dream that’s rudely awakened, when he gets it back, receiving a C+, and a P.S. that he’d shoot his eye out.

I totally relate to Ralphie in the scene. I was also a terrible writer—and then going to art school certainly didn’t improve those skills. Fortunately, my wife is a great writer, and an even better editor. I can’t even begin to guess how many red pens she wore out trying to fix my incoherent paragraphs, and sentences that weren’t sentences at all. I still rely on her for editing, but over the years I’ve acquired much better writing skills. And so can you.

As with any skill you only get better with practice. So if you are like me and Ralph, and need to up your writing game, you simply have to start writing. But to help you get things going, let me share some ideas, and tips from my experience, so that this endeavor might not seem so ominous.

First of all, don’t fear the rough draft. In fact, when you sit down to write, always assume that your first draft is going to be terrible. Just start typing, getting any and all of your ideas down on paper. Don’t worry if your copy is full of typos, poor grammar, or incomplete ideas. Just get some words on the page. This is important because the real art of writing is not in its origination, it’s in its editing. So get some material, no matter how rough, in front of you, so you can get to that more critical stage of the writing process.

Once you’ve written a terrible first draft, take a quick break, check your email, or get a glass of water. Then do a high level review of what you’ve just written. Don’t put your highly critical editor’s hat on yet—looking for grammar or spelling mistakes. Just come to it asking whether or not your main idea is coherent and develops in a logical way. I’ve often found that in the process of writing a rough draft that my main point emerges toward the end, after I’ve been thinking about my subject for awhile. And so this first review sometimes involves moving a later paragraph up much closer to the beginning, and then re-ording my supporting ideas accordingly. Honestly, this is the hardest part of the writing process for me.

Once you have your piece in a more orderly form, now it’s time to give it one more pass, with a finer editorial eye. It’s only at this point that I begin to think about style, alternating the length of sentences, the use of alliteration, or other flourishes that make reading more enjoyable.

When you’ve gotten this far, you’re likely to have something that is at least acceptable, and sufficient for your purposes in marketing. Keep in mind, that while we should always strive for excellence, your business blog post is not going to be up for a pulitzer. When it comes to content generation for your business great really is the enemy of good. It’s much better that you get one or two good pieces written each month, than to belabor one article for months on end because you don’t think it’s perfect.

Finally, if at all possible, make friends with a great editor. Editors are worth their weight in gold. You will learn more about writing from working with a good editor, than any other technique for developing these skills. Maybe you can trade services with a professional writer, or ask a family member who has this skill to help you out.

Writing takes work, but its benefits are bountiful. There will always be room to improve, but you won’t begin improving until you make a commitment to just start writing.

Until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.