You’ve got the passion; you have grammar and punctuation nailed; you even have the willpower to spend the time that it takes. Yet, somehow your writing is just always okay. Whether it’s a piece of literature or a blog post, you want it to be great, but it never reaches that level. Maybe you need to take some advice from those writers we call great and pay more attention to what they do – before, during, and after they write.
Understand Your Audience
Whether you are writing a novel or a piece of content for a blog, if you don’t know who you are writing for, then you are just writing for yourself. While that may be self-satisfying and even cathartic, it is unlikely that others will think the piece great. Shakespeare knew his audience. They were not the wealthy, educated aristocracy. They were the commoners who came and stood to watch his plays. He had to have some pretty base humor; he had to have at least sexual innuendos; and, in the case of his tragedies, he had to have blood and gore. So, who is your audience? Is it those who love intrigue, courtroom drama, or humor? Do they want “impossible possibilities” that science fiction offers or do they want fiction based in historical fact. If you are a content writer, what questions do they have that you can answer? What facts and data do they need and want? What do they need to know about a product or service that will create a relationship and loyalty? What emotional attachments do they need? You have to stop writing for yourself and write instead for your reader.
Explore and Experiment
If you write fiction, try reading and writing some non-fiction. If you write only non-fiction or content, read and write some fiction. Often, by getting totally outside of their own “comfort zones,” writers gain new perspectives, absorb new styles and techniques, and discover that some of those styles and techniques they can actually use to make their own writing far more engaging. They learn how to “mix it up” and “spice it up.” So, fictional writers may check professional essay writing and try their hands at it; content writers will write a short story.
Read Always and Ever
Here’s the thing about reading. Great writers do it not just to absorb more about style and technique. The do it because it exposes them to ideas and new information, and it causes them to think – think about a lot of things. All of these ideas and information are stored away, and it is pretty amazing how they pop out of those recesses of memory when they can be used. One writer of science fiction has stated that he reads a lot of historical non-fiction, because early scientific experimentation and mistakes have given him a lot of great ideas.
Do Your Research
When James Michener wrote his generational sagas, like Hawaii and Chesapeake, not only was he a great story teller, but he had teams of people conducting research for him. Why? Because, though his works were fiction, they had to be historically correct. Likewise, if you are writing a piece of fiction or non-fiction, either one, you need to fully “know” the time, the locale, and everything necessary about the setting of your plot and characters. If you don’t know all of the intricacies of the legal system, then you can hardly write a courtroom drama.
If you are a content writer, the same requirement goes for you. You can have an opinion or give advice, but if you do not have the facts, the percentages, and the data to back you up, no one is interested in what you have to say. Information and data lend credibility to what you have to say and make you an “expert” on a topic. People want to get their information from an “expert.”
Show Don’t Tell
Great fiction writers do not waste describing their characters. They provide physical descriptions a little at a time – they dribble it in as the plot unfolds. They want the reader to form a “picture” of the character on his/her own. That’s part of the fun of reading fiction. Likewise, great fiction writers do not waste words describing a character’s personality. They show that personality through dialogue and action. When writing non-fiction and describing characters, sometimes it is appropriate to provide a physical description and to give an opinion about an historical figure. However, any opinion must be backed by examples, if a writer is to be believed.
If you are writing content, you are writing non-fiction. Any statement, opinion, or advice you provide must be accompanied by examples. This is “showing” not just “telling” and it results in reader understanding.
Now we are getting to some really important stuff. Engagement refers not to “what” you say but, rather, “how” you say it. There are two things involved in achieving reader engagement, and every great writer knows this.
- You know your audience and you write for them. This includes style, vocabulary, and sentence structure. If you err at all, err on the side of simplicity. No one has ever complained because something was written too simply.
- Every writer has a unique “style” but that style can always be better. Great writers are not smug. They read, read, read – they re-read those pieces of writing that are compelling and that engage them. They ask why the piece is so engaging. What techniques did that writer use that worked so well? And they try to incorporate and emulate those techniques so that their writing continues to get better and be more engaging for their readers. No greater writer ever claims to be finished with his/her own learning.
If you don’t engage your readers, no one will ever call you great. It’s really that simple.
Edit and Revise
Your first copy of any piece – fiction, non-fiction, content, article – will not be the best it can be – ever. That’s why great writers have editors. You may not have an editor, but you still need to revise and re-write. One of the best things you can do is give the piece to someone who has the persona of your audience and ask for honest feedback. If that someone will be honest with you, you will have the best “editor” of all – the person you want to engage.
How many of these things are you doing? If you are missing some, what are you waiting for?