How to write better in one surprisingly simple step

How to write betterWhat 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 know how to write content that persuades? That (I’m going to say it) “engages”? That people actually want to read?

Then here’s the simple step you need to take:

Stop writing and start editing.

Yes, becoming a better writer isn’t about knowing how to write. It’s about knowing how to self-edit. tweet this

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 teaching people how to write better, 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.

The writing process

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. Check out my super simple alternative to mind maps here). 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.

15 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Steve R says:

    Usual splendid advice. Please left justify the title though, the odd white space offends me. There, got you back 🙂

  2. Excellent post.

    I was trained as an editor rather than a writer, which may be why this comes relatively easy to me.

    I’ve learned that the best way for me to write is to get any old thing down on the page, then start working it, like a lump of clay, until it looks like something. The idea of getting it ‘right first time’, in my case, is risible.

    I’ve noticed that people are very unwilling to do this with blog posts, so the writing ends up a bit unfocused and scatty. I would rather publish one post a month that I’ve re-edited ten times than ten posts a month I’ve dashed off without reflection.

    The other point about editing is that it takes time. The mind doesn’t always process things as quickly as you’d like. Sleeping on it can do wonders.

  3. Very sound advice here. I think that being able to edit your own work effectively really makes the difference to the quality of the copy you produce. As a freelance writer, it’s a critical skill.

    I also agree with Tom’s comment above about giving editing the time it needs – sometimes I find myself struggling to get a piece of copy just right when I’m working late in the evening, but then find I can fix it in a couple of minutes first thing in the morning.

  4. Liat Behr says:

    You disclosed a living truth here. It may be tough to get the first draft down and so you fall in love with it. But you absolutely can’t write a great piece if you’re not willing to go back to rewrite it. It took me a long time to understand that great writers worked their tails off to become so – by rewriting. Thank you for the reminder!

  5. I like to start with a structure or I never seem to get anywhere but it’s generally pretty loose – dot points are my go-to. I’m trying very hard to curb the impulse to edit as I write – my focus now is on getting it all down and then like you, spending a lot of time re-ordering things, deleting things, re-writing things until it’s something I’m happy to send out into the world! The hard bit sometimes is knowing when to stop tinkering!

  6. Wendy Lo says:

    I believe that the best writing comes when you have all these thoughts/emotions running around inside you and you pour it out when you express yourself. This can be the reason why a good blog entry can be quite engaging!

    Tips for Business writing – Research and decide on the points you must include and work to attach the concepts to each other in the right language.

    Love all the comments – they’re all great pieces of advice!

  7. Paul Eveleigh says:

    For example:
    What’s the secret to improving your writing?
    A better grasp of grammar?
    A keener eye for jargon?
    A deeper understanding of your reader?
    These skills are useful but they’ll only take you so far.
    Do you want your writing to persuade? To encourage people to read?
    Then spend more time editing.
    Yes, becoming a better writer means becoming a better self-editor. Knowing when your writing’s a bit, well, rubbish really. Honing your work until it’s right.

  8. Louise says:

    Interesting post. I trained as a journalist about 25 years ago so for anything around the 200-250 mark the planning is so ingrained I don’t even think about it. My diagram probably looks like Clare’s for anything up to 2,000 words. Beyond that and my planning time shoots up. I hone individual words repeatedly but investing in planning time means I rarely have to move blocks of copy. This may be because I am moving them around on my spreadsheet…mindmaps don’t work for me either.

    The other advantage of journalism training is it teaches you that you can’t fit in all the ideas research will give you, so you are forced to pick the strongest and be ruthless about editing out the weakest ideas.

    Tom gives the best advice though – leave time between finishing and publishing because what worked at the end of one day won’t necessarily work the next!

  9. Melissa Abrams says:

    I, too, am not a planner. I find outlines useless and painful. I do spend a good amount of time on the research and interview phase. Then I need to get something on the page to figure out what I want and then work on organizing and cutting out parts that don’t work. At that point, I find it helpful to work off-screen – print it and mark it up. I’m a freelancer. When possible, it’s good to have someone who knows nothing about the topic read it and give feedback about what doesn’t work, make sense, etc.

  10. Clare Lynch says:

    Great point about Journalism training, Louise. Journalists are masters of persuasion. I’ve always said it’s the profession that has the most useful lessons for the budding business writer. And stepping away from your work in order to review it with fresh eyes the next day is always good advice.

  11. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Melissa. I suspect you’re like me – it’s the editing stage we find most satisfying. Love your advice about first showing your work to someone who knows nothing about the topic – knowledge is often a curse when trying to get your message across to the widest audience.

  12. rosie says:

    i’m working on my first book and find i go through these stages, but more in a spiral. i research, plan, write, edit multiple times, do some more researching, find a different plan, re-write, edit, edit, edit… research some more, change plans entirely, …
    haven’t got to the proofreading stage yet. will it ever come?

  13. Clare Lynch says:

    Hi Rosie. Have you thought about getting a second opinion on your book as a way to get you out of the spiral?

  14. Your client has one thing going for him: he gives 105%. No wonder he’s an economist.

  15. Faiza Ikram says:

    Interesting. When I wrote college papers, I felt I spent almost the same amount of time editing and research because I often went back and forth between researching and writing.

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