What do you think is the secret to improving your writing?
Getting a better grasp of grammar?
Developing a keener eye for jargon?
Gaining a deeper understanding of your reader?
All of these skills are useful, of course. But they’ll only take you so far.
Do you really want to produce writing that persuades? That (I’m going to say it) “engages”? That people actually want to read?
Then here’s what you need to do:
Spend more time editing.
Yes, becoming a better writer isn’t about becoming a better writer. It’s about becoming a better self-editor.
It’s about knowing when your writing’s a bit, well, rubbish really.
And it’s about really enjoying going back and honing your work over and over until it’s right.
You know – as in that psychological state they call “flow”.
Often when I’m doing a writing workshop, someone will ask: “How can I get my writing right first time?”.
The implication being that that’s what a professional writer does. It’s always fun to disabuse people of that myth.
And just in case you were wondering, I’m not alone in being a writer who usually gets it wrong first time.
Check out this page from a manuscript of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, where the author is describing the character of George Smiley:
Or this extract from the same author’s Tailor of Panama.
All looks very familiar to me. Does it to you?
If not, you might want to consider tweaking how you spend your time next time you have a document to produce.
Below is a chart showing the various stages involved in producing a written document – and the percentage of time different writers might spend on each.
I’ve identified five stages: research, planning, writing, editing and proof reading (note: proof reading is not the same as editing).
The chart on the left shows my own writing process. The chart in the middle shows what I suspect is fairly typical for most people, while the chart on the right shows the writing process of a recent client who came to me for coaching.
As you can see, I’m not a great planner (some other writers swear by “mind maps”, but I can’t think of anything less useful than a load of squiggly lines in no logical order). I do, however, spend a huge amount of time editing: re-ordering great chunks, rephrasing, generally honing and honing away.
I suppose you could argue my lack of planning is the reason I have to spend so much time editing.
But I think, for me, something else is going on. It’s that I think by writing and editing. I never really feel I’ve got something straight in my head until I’ve got it straight on the page.
If you look at the chart again, you’ll see on the right the writing process for someone I recently coached – an economist who needed to get complex ideas over quickly.
He came to me for one-to-one training because he’d done numerous writing workshops but people were still telling him his writing was “dense”.
With a little probing, I discovered he spent most of his time researching his documents – which just generated loads of ideas he felt he had to cram in.
And because he spent no time planning – and no time going back and filtering stuff out – it was hard to detect a clear, logical argument.
I pointed out to him, too, that every other sentence seemed to contain at least one set of brackets – symptomatic on a micro scale of a lack of filtering and structure.
After just a few one-to-one coaching sessions, my client has become a much better writer. Or, rather, a much better self-editor.
How do you divide your time between research, planning, writing, editing and proof reading? Share your writing process in the comments.