Writing Is Hard: 5 Basic Principles To Make It Just A Little Bit Easier
I find that most writing advice clouds my thinking. So, I usually avoid it altogether.
The hypocrisy in writing this article is not lost on me — since I probably wouldn’t read it all the way through if I were you.
But I still find it important to write. Why?
Because I believe in a principled approach to life. I believe in documenting and refining the systems we follow to improve the ways we show up, the things we do, the decisions we make, etc.
And so, I want you to use this advice, not as some secular, writing bible, but as a cue to start your own list, to develop a set of criteria to follow — that will make you a better writer and better person.
That’s my goal here.
That said, here are the 5 principles I try to follow in my writing. Use them, scrap them, and manipulate them for your own use:
1. Have something to say.
The easiest formula I’ve found for this is to share what I know and how I know it.
There’s this dichotomy in the ways the “greats” view writing. On the one hand, there’s a camp of people saying, “writers don’t want to write, they just write.” On the other hand, there’s a camp of people saying, “writers have to live first, then they can write.”
The space between those two camps — is where I try to lean. I want to write. Write well. I want to do the action of writing. The title “writer” is a secondary, lesser consequence of quality and consistent action.
That is to say, to write, you must write. To begin to consider yourself as a writer, you must have to have meaningful stories and ideas to contribute.
You have to live and write. You have to consume and create. You need input and output to become better.
This means you can be a 14-year-old writer. But it also means you can’t be a 14-year-old writer talking about executive leadership. Because you don’t know anything about that.
This is where the cliché, “write what you know” comes in.
2. Clear thinking > fancy prose.
Any article or book that I like reading is evidence of someone who has thought through about an idea in a different way than I have. They are able to articulate something that I subconsciously (or even unconsciously) believe but never realized.
So many times, writing and creating is done just for the sake of it. If you write often, you know the difference between being pushed and pulled by an idea.
Pushing is forcing it. This is necessary sometimes — when you are working on tight deadlines or just trying to become disciplined.
But the pulling, that’s what any artist does this for. That feeling when the words just flow out.
The goal is to create more moments like these — which are really just the function of clear thinking (or well-done research).
When we are pushing tirelessly, sometimes the best thing we can do is walk away. Meditate. Let the ideas marinate on a run. Read something. Go play catch. Work on something else. And then come back to it when we’ve given the ideas enough space to formulate.
3. Authenticity first.
There is this false dichotomy that’s been presented in digital writing — that somehow you have to either write from the heart OR write something extremely practical.
The best writers question this fallacy implicitly in the way they approach the craft. They use rich anecdotes (personal and historical) to present universal truths and connections. They walk a tight line of confidence and humility.
The worst thing you can do (worse than being too verbose or overconfident in your writing) is to soften your message or your story because you are afraid of how it might be perceived. It’s that very opinionated little editor that creeps into your mind halfway through writing a piece and says, well “if so-and-so reads this, or a person like this comes across this, then they’ll hate me.”
When you write for everyone, you reach no one.
Stick with the core. Don’t water your ideas down. Own your ignorance. Marry your truth. Be as honest as possible.
People connect with authenticity, with vulnerability — not with people who are clearly trying to make everyone happy.
4. Know your intent.
What are you trying to accomplish with this piece of work you’re putting into the world?
I know, I know — this seems anti-art. This isn’t the purist approach to writing. But seriously, what are you writing and publishing for? You’d be writing in a locked journal if it was just for the sake of “processing.”
You must admit — even though your ego doesn’t want to — that you are trying to get better at this, that you are trying to inspire others or say something that you think matters.
When you know your intent, you have something to measure against that isn’t view, read, or share stats. This is critical. Or else you’ll get discouraged or distracted by the data.
I love the popular quote from This American Life host, Ira Glass:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
That’s always my intent. To produce more work, so I can produce better work. This way, if I am criticized or judged, I’m okay. Because I know I’m one step closer to accomplishing what I want with my work — to be a servant to humanity through the written word.
5. Edit out as much as possible.
I’m terrible at this. I can be very wordy at times. [Lol. All the time.]
Law #4 in the 48 Laws of Power is: “Always say less than necessary.” This is as true in the boardroom as it is writing a movie script. As it is in publishing a how-to article.
Stephen King says,
“To write is human, to edit is divine.”
He’s right. Because editing is a virtue. It is really effing hard. Sometimes, you must cut the lines and phrases you love because they aren’t moving your core idea forward. It hurts. Every scrapped sentence is like a little loss. But you’ll be better for it.
The most impactful ideas, the ones that that stick with us, are intentionally simple — and often communicated in the fewest words possible.