20 June

6 Keys to Becoming a Better Writer

How do you feel about writing? As Virtual Assistants, many of us are asked to write blog posts, articles, or even email newsletters. If that’s you, do you look forward to your writing tasks, or does the thought fill you with dread?

I used to dread writing… maybe not writing per se, but the pressure of needing to produce something that other people would want to read. I’d sit in front of a blank computer screen for hours, and then the night before the project was due, I’d power through it and barely finish it in time. Have you seen the movie Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker needed to rescue Princess Leia from the clutches of the Empire? I think Luke felt less pressure than I did.

But a few years ago, I started to change my approach to writing, and that has made all the difference. Preparing to write is a bit like preparing your feet and legs for a dance competition. You need a process of conditioning to keep your writing muscles in top form. That way, you’ll be ready to go when your client asks you to write something, and you might even enjoy it! ☺

Here are some tips to help us all become better writers:

1. Breathe in some books.

In an article titled “Reading Is Like Breathing In; Writing Is Like Breathing Out,”  Pam Allyn explains how reading can inspire children to write. She says that children “can read through the lens of writing and be stunned by the author’s craft of language, and then they can do the same to craft their stories so others might know them too.”

In the same way, reading can inspire us grown-up Virtual Assistants. I would suggest sitting down with your favorite beverage and reading for at least 15 minutes a day from one or more of the following categories:

– Something fun – a book you enjoy just for the way the story flows

– Something inspiring – a book you love because of the author’s style of writing

– Something educational – a book or article that will help you get a feel for the types of writing assignments you do for your clients

As you read, make note of any parts that stand out for you. I find that this type of reading helps build my vocabulary and gives me ideas for content and sentence structure. For example, I may not write a blog post in the style of my favorite author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, but her beautiful descriptions of nature make me excited about the possibilities of language. And as I read posts by other professional bloggers, their work shows me how I can improve my own blogging.

2. Give yourself enough time.

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” – Douglas Adams

Now, this is an area where I have definitely struggled because of leaving projects until the last minute. To avoid this kind of stress, I would highly recommend that you and your client create an editorial calendar. If you know what topics you’ll be writing about on a monthly basis, you can put less pressure on yourself and work on your projects ahead of time.

Here are some important things you can focus on when deadlines aren’t whooshing by:

– Enjoy some downtime or physical exercise where you can think about the topic and brainstorm ideas.

– Research the topic online and make note of any helpful sites.

– Determine what tone, style, and vocabulary are appropriate for your audience.

– Ask your client any questions you may have about the topic.

– Set aside your first draft for a while and come back to it later so you can make any revisions.

3. Take notes when inspiration strikes.

British writer W. Somerset Maugham said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

I wish I could say the same. My inspiration often strikes in the middle of the night, just before my head hits the pillow. Usually, I have a pen and paper nearby, but one night I had nothing to write on and didn’t feel like getting up. Thankfully I realized I could turn on my cellphone and use Google Docs to quickly type in my thoughts.

So wherever you are, make sure you have a way of recording any ideas that pop into your head. Here are some online and offline options:

– Google Docs 
– Microsoft OneNote
– Evernote
– Zoho Notebook
– Voice recordings via a smart phone or desktop app
– Good old paper and pen

And most of all, remember to look at your notes when you’re writing your piece. I almost forgot to look at my notes when writing this blog post and nearly left out an important part of the introduction. Never underestimate the value of those moments of inspiration.

4. Avoid writing and editing at the same time.

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” – Shannon Hale

When I was a kid, I watched the movie Amadeus, a fictionalized biography of musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. According to the film, Mozart heard music in his head and wrote it down in perfectly formed first drafts that didn’t require any revisions.

I used to imagine I could write perfectly crafted essays in one sitting, but what I was really doing was writing and editing at the same time. Doing both at once slowed me down a lot, and I would often get stuck.

But Ann Handley provides a solution to this problem and makes it fun. In her book, Everybody Writes, she encourages us to “write badly and create a first draft: The Ugly First Draft (TUFD)” (p. 41). She goes on to describe how messy this process can be, but how important it is to just let your ideas flow and then rewrite your draft later.

Writing like this takes some discipline, especially if you’re a writer who also works as an editor. But I can tell you it’s very enjoyable to just relax and let the words flow. Your inner editor will have plenty of opportunity to get a workout once The Ugly First Draft is complete.

 

5. Access helpful writing resources.

As a Virtual Assistant, you may be asked to write several different types of content. These books can help you with many writing tasks:

Everybody Writes by Ann Handley (the most comprehensive and helpful book I have in my collection right now) Along with general writing tips, Handley provides specific guidelines for writing online content such as blog posts, Social Media posts, email, website content, and more. I highly recommend purchasing a copy and keeping it by your computer so you can refer to it when needed.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
A classic style guide with practical tips for writing effectively – this book will help keep your writing muscles conditioned.

6. Connect with fellow writers.

And finally, our writing skills can be sharpened by connecting with fellow writers online or offline. If you’re on Twitter, I recommend following the hashtags #writingtips, #amwriting, and #writerslife. Over the past while, I’ve intentionally followed writers and have been enriched by their wisdom and humor.

For example, I’ve seen the following graphic in several places on Twitter and Facebook. The quote comes from a book by Gary Provost called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.


In addition to advice, you can receive great encouragement from other writers. They can urge you to persevere when you’re stuck on a project. They can make you laugh. And when you’re feeling anxious, you’ll often see a post that puts everything into perspective. When I see that a fiction writer has written 25 chapters and called one of the characters by the wrong name for the last 8 chapters, I think, “Okay, I can do this 1,500-word blog post.”

Now we’d love to hear from you! As a Virtual Assistant, what are some tips or strategies that have helped you write quality content for your clients?

2 thoughts on “6 Keys to Becoming a Better Writer

  1. Heather

    Great blog post, Jena! As someone who sort of fell into corporate communications a number of years ago, I didn’t have the writing/journalism background that everyone else on the team did. Although I apparently had natural talent to write for different audiences (my first editor said she was thrilled when she got the draft of my very first magazine article), the whole writing thing stressed me out. Since then, I’ve taken a bunch of communications courses (your advice to surround yourself with resources and fellow writers is bang on), and I’ve received lots of good advice that has helped me learn to love writing. As I read your post, two things came to mind that I wanted to share with you and your readers: 1 – That first boss who hired me into the communications team immediately told me to buy a couple books, the most important of which was “The Elements of Style” by Strunk & White, as you mentioned. It has made a difference and still sits on my desk! And 2 – I learned in the first business communications course I took at a college that editing is a distinctly different stage than writing (there are even a few different types and layers of editing!), and it’s critical not to do both at the same time. I was surprised that the instructor was telling us it’s normal for editing to take just as long as writing, and it’s expected your writing will stink at first – just like your Ann Handley quote of TUFD. That helped me lean into the discomfort of the getting the first draft out. Admittedly, I still like editing and proofreading better than drafting from scratch, but I’ve come to view myself as a writer. PS: I should likely edit this comment before I submit it (Strunk & White would tell me there’s lots I can do to make it better!), but I’ve got a client’s newsletter I need to draft and a deadline looming. Must get back to work. Thanks for the great post!

    Reply
    1. Jena Kroeker Post author

      Thanks so much, Heather! I appreciate you sharing your insights and such good advice about editing. I’m particularly struck by your instructor’s observation that it’s normal for editing to take as long as writing – so true and so important to remember. Thanks again, and I wish you all the best, fellow writer!

      Reply

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