Oh man, Heather thinks.
Writing is just so hard.
She wishes she could write as if she were chatting with a friend.
But here she is.
At her desk.
Staring at her badly written words.
Heather rereads her favorite quote by Kurt Vonnegut, stuck to her monitor on a yellow Post-it note:
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Yeah, sure, Heather thinks. She understands that.
But how can she make it work?
Let me explain my 4-step process for engaging readers—one at a time…
Step 1. Pick the right ideas
If you’re wondering who I am writing for …
Of course, it’s you.
Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.
When I pick an idea for a new blog post, I always ask myself: What’s in it for you? Why would you want to read this?
Officially, my ideal reader is Sarah, a marketing coach in Canada. Sarah is a composite of various people who might be reading my blog, and she’s also a bit like my younger self.
But who exactly Sarah is, is not so important. What’s key is that I try to understand her aims. I know she wants to become a better writer. I know she procrastinates sometimes. I know she wants to be more personal and compassionate in her writing. She wants to write persuasive sales copy without selling her soul. She wants to write better stories. She wants to find her voice.
Sarah has helped me become more reader-focused. But over time, her picture in my mind has blurred a little. I’ve answered most of her questions so I’m more intuitive when choosing an idea for my next blog post.
I notice things that are interesting and then ask myself: How does this help my reader become a better writer? Or sometimes, I might ask: Why is this interesting? Or: Why would *I* read this?
Whatever form the question takes, the key for me is to be helpful, to always have a clear purpose for what I write.
Step 2. Write with the door closed
After I’ve picked an idea, I might write a quick outline. What do I need to explain? What questions do I need to answer? How do I ensure an article is helpful to you?
And next, it’s time to write a first draft, and I follow Stephen King’s advice:
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.
When I write a first draft, I forget Sarah for a while and I don’t think of you either. (I’m sorry!)
My sole task is to get something down on paper.
Writing a first draft is the toughest part of writing for me. So, the bar has to be as low as possible, and I don’t like you or Sarah or anyone else looking over my shoulder.
I allow myself to write a bad first draft. There may be gaps in my arguments. Missing references. Dodgy sentences. Bad word choice. It doesn’t matter.
Nobody needs to see how rickety my first draft is. It just needs to come into existence, and then it can be revised.
Step 3. Become your own writing coach
To start revising, I change roles.
I am not the author of that crappy draft anymore, I become the coach who will improve it. To make that transition and look at my draft with fresh eyes, I leave a first draft for a minimum of 24 hours.
When I become my own writing coach, I don’t wear a different hat or a different shirt, but it feels that way. I’m a different person and I don’t need to feel disappointed about my writing.
I review what’s good and what needs to be improved. And mostly I ask myself: Does the writing actually say what it needs to say?
A first draft is often messy. I don’t phrase my thoughts clearly. I often just hint at them. And there are asides that are irrelevant and obscuring the picture.
Figuring out what I want to say and then making sure the text actually says that is often the most challenging part of my editing process. It’s also the most important.
Jerry Seinfeld suggests that we have to be ruthless editors—to turn ourselves into a “ball-busting son of a bitch.” I do understand that sentiment but it’s not quite my style.
So, my approach is more that of a kind coach. I’m straight with my feedback. I’m pretty ruthless. I don’t overlook any vagueness. I improve everything that can be improved.
But I approach the revision process with kindness.
I recognize the hard work the author in me has done, and I don’t want to upset her. We need to work together—the writing coach in me and the author in me.
4. Open the conversation
When the coach in me is fairly happy, I swap hats again, and I try to read my text through the eyes of a reader.
Maybe through Sarah’s eyes. Maybe through your eyes. Maybe through the eyes of my younger me.
Here is what I ask myself:
- Where do I assume knowledge that my reader might not possess?
- What’s boring?
- Where’s my tone off?
- Where does the reader need some empathy or comfort?
I see a blog post (or a course or a book) as a conversation with my reader. I sense your presence, and I write to make you feel part of the conversation.
I make small changes. I’ll add a question here or there. I use the word you a little more often. I make the writing clearer, simpler, more vivid if that’s still required. The coach in me is not perfect, and the reader in me points out what the coach has missed.
I pay attention to the rhythm of my writing because I know you’ll sense the rhythm, even when you read quietly. I want to create a smooth flow, a pleasant rhythm. I pay attention to my tone and the words I’ve chosen. Am I my most compassionate self?
In this process of editing and conversing with you, my voice strengthens.
The editing process is messy
I’ve described here 4 discrete steps but the truth is that there’s some back and forth. It’s more like 20 or 30 steps, or even more.
Sometimes an idea doesn’t work the way I intended and I have to go back to: Why am I writing this? What’s in it for the reader?
Also, the lines between me as author, writing coach, and reader often blurs. Sometimes I try to be all at once.
The more experienced I’ve become, the more intuitive the writing process becomes and the easier it becomes to hop between the 3 perspectives. I go through my text again and again, doing whatever feels necessary until the author, the writing coach, and the reader in me are all happy.
The author in me wants any piece to be written in my voice. Only I can have written this. I’ve left a piece of me. The writing coach is focused on clarity, and the flow has to be smooth. Lastly, the reader in me wants to feel part of this conversation and she wants to learn something. Reading my stuff has to feel rewarding.
Of the three, the reader is the most important, and the author the least important.
Our most precious tool as writers is empathy
It takes multiple rounds of editing to satisfy the author, the coach, and the reader in me.
But it’s a good challenge.
It requires me to distance myself from my words, and to read through someone else’s eyes.
But the effort seems worth it.
Because I like having this conversation with you.
Thank you for being here.