After 20 years of teaching people how to write, I’ve boiled down the top 5 writing mistakes people make. For this series of blogs, I’ll be giving you my best advice for how to eliminate each one. In reality, your very best writing will result from your very best creative and critical thinking. But by also following my advice here, you can improve the quality of anything you write. I promise.
Mistake 1: You write for yourself, not for your reader.
We’re all self-absorbed. And mostly, we write based on our own needs and concerns. To write well, though, you must make the effort to anticipate the needs and concerns of your readers—every time. Face it: your audience can’t read your mind. Don’t make them. Care more about what your reader wants from you than what you want from your reader.
How to Eliminate This Mistake
Use your imagination
Because everyone’s overloaded with information, you should organize any email message, blog post, article, or book chapter into logical, 2-3 sentence paragraphs (chunks!) with clear transitions and succinct subheadings that enable even the laziest of readers to get your meaning just by skimming. To do this, put your imagination to work to come up with all the information, logical organization, and guideposts that one real person will need to understand what you’re trying to say.
Don’t expect to write anything worth reading on the first try
While there may be a few brilliant writers who can craft a flawless first draft, the majority of us (you and me included) need to free write, rewrite, develop, add, delete, and tinker-tinker-tinker with word choice, sentence structure, paragraphing, organization, and punctuation until you and I make what we mean for ourselves and our readers Scotch tape clear.
Let your first draft rest before revising
After getting your big ideas down, let your first draft rest without prodding, poking, or kneading the text again for at least 15 to 30 minutes. Accomplished writers—or even pretty good writers—call their first draft a “rough” draft because they know their first attempts at writing will be full of holes and disorganized with a bunch of sentences that still suck.
By simply taking even brief breaks from your writing, you’ll be amazed at how many gaps in meaning, jarring sentences, unclear transitions, and “Whoa! I’m-glad-I-caught-those-tangled-messes” you can find yourself (and then fix) to make your reader’s life easier.
Ask someone to tell you what you need to hear
If that email message, report, contract, executive summary, newsletter, or book chapter is actually important to you, then before you make it public or click “send,” you should definitely ask someone you trust—or someone you know will be straight with you—to tell you where she can’t follow what you’re saying, isn’t convinced, or thinks your writing sounds funny—and not “funny” in a good way.
When she tells you these things, do NOT get your underwear in a bunch and start defending anything you’ve written. Just listen. You WANT to know what’s not working.
Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Remember: No one gets writing perfect on the first try. That’s why successful authors repeatedly revise—and hire editors like me.