January 23, 2018

Writing techniques


Writing techniques from the best writers

 Writing techniques are memes. They evolved over time as the best solutions from the best writers to the common problems of writing.

 If you plan to start your own contest business, there are techniques that will help you do it better: The right choice of writing techniques makes you more productive, more persuasive, more effective in your writing.

But since these memes, these writing solutions, are neither taught in school nor widely understood, I will show you here how learning  writing techniques brings a high return on your time investment. In fact, I believe the right writing techniques (unlike, for example, the study of grammar) can mean life or death for your writing. 


What do we mean by "writing  techniques"? 

If you're a content entrepreneur you'll need to write regularly. But if you do that without knowing the techniques, then it’s almost certain that you’re wasting time, re-inventing wheels, making the writing harder than it needs to be. There’s also a very good chance that you end up with inferior writing.

This is not just tragic – it’s unnecessary. Because there’s no shortage of well-established techniques for practically every writing function. And there’s no reason why you cannot learn the most important of them.

"This is not just tragic – it’s unnecessary."

You can think of writing techniques as writing memes that evolved out of the work of the best writers and teachers. We know George Orwell’s solutions to the problem of cliché, for example. We know how Thomas Hardy brought about anticipation and suspense in his novels and how he literally created the cliffhanger. We know how the most successful content entrepreneurs like  Malcolm Gladwell, uses narrative to produce immensely readable and engaging non-fiction. And we have magnificent resources from some of the best teachers of writing.

The teachers and writers of the past and present tell us at how they solve the problems of writing. "How do I make my writing more persuasive?", " What are the best techniques for getting and holding my reader’s attention?". "What are the most effective ways to structure an argument?"  Whatever your questions, there's almost certainly a writing technique for the task - for starting off strong and rounding off stronger, for engaging and entertaining the reader, for surprising or informing her. It's all there.

"To ignore them is to reinvent wheels every time you write..."

So, whether you blog or write reports, write email, or write e-books, there is no shortage of writing techniques that will help you do it better and grow as a writer.

To learn the key writing techniques is to learn from the best. To ignore them is to reinvent wheels every time you write and make the writing far harder than it needs to be.


Writing techniques

Five must-have writing techniques for any writer:

5 must-have writing techniques


Must-have writing technique #1: 

'Author’s purpose'

More than any other thing, it's the drive to write and tell the story sense of purpose that separates the men from the goats, as it were.

A strong, clear sense of purpose will drive your writing and give it the fuel it needs to be great. Purpose keeps you on track, it brings unity and cohesion to your piece, and it's essential to brand building, to developing your niche, and so on. But note that there are several layers of purpose that you need to keep in mind:

  • Your ‘literary’ purpose: By this I mean your artistic or creative goals - do you want to entertain or inform?
  • Your practical purpose: What you want to gain through writing the piece: A book deal, sign-ups on your blog, selling a product, and so on.
  • Your purpose for your reader: What you want year reader to get from it, what you want her to do, how you want her to act, and so on.


Must-have writing technique #2:

Human interest

For years, all the major studies on writing have been absolutely clear: The thing that people want most often to read about - overwhelmingly and across almost every genre - is people. Yes, people want to read about people. That’s what gets the interest and holds it.

To make your writing interesting, learn to give it some human interest. Learn the techniques of storytelling. Use anecdote, narrative, jokes. When you inject people into year writing and you will improve it from a readability perspective. So, take a quick glance now and count how many references to people you have in year texts. Not many? Then, put some in.


Must-have writing technique #3:


Reading is a writing technique? Yes. Absolutely. The ability to read critically and go below the surface of any piece of writing – including your own – is an essential skill. I see reading and writing as one process. The good writer is constantly reading and constantly writing and itls almost as if the two become one activity.


Must have writing technique #4:

The concrete style

It’s almost impossible not to write without using generalities. (I just did it.) But in general terms (ouch!) it’s fair to say that generalities can get old very quickly.

So, let's get concrete. Without any doubt, your writing will improve according to how concrete and specific you can make it. Write about specific people in specific situations, doing specific things. If you’re faced with a broad generalization that you feel you have to make, take it apart and try to reconstitute it in a particular example. Let your reader see, hear, taste, touch or smell something (vicariously, of course). This is particularly true where you’re trying to convey a big, or even universal insight. Artists like Harold Pinter or Eugene O Neill have delved deep into the human heart through stories that were local, narrow even – some were even called kithcn sink dramas.


stephen-king-on-writing200_custom-s6-c10Must-have writing technique #5: 

The mega technique

By all means loot and steal and borrow from every good writer you come across. Read him and learn from him. Then apply that too your own work. (Note, this is not plagiarizing – you’re looting writing techniques, not passages.)




Writing technique: Arguing your case

Let’s say you want to argue a case for something in an e-book (or report, pdf, etc.). Well, it isn't easy to change people's beliefs or behaviors. It's not easy to get that type of response.

 So, if you've never learned the techniques of argumentation then there's a level on which you won't really know what you're doing. You're certainly making the writing more difficult than it needs to be. You're also limiting your own options, and you're going to have to reinvent solutions that many excellent writers have long since established. You'll be forced into one of two default approaches to the writing.

1. The plop strategy

The first default is what I call the 'plop' strategy of writing: Here you dump the words onto the page and click 'publish'. The plop strategy doesn't take a lot of  time or effort but it rarely comes with any argumentative power: You probably didn't even take the time to think through the argument, let alone lay it out convincingly. 

 "The plop strategy doesn't take a lot of  time or effort but it rarely comes with any argumentative power"

Anyone can plop words onto a page and hit 'publish'. But the writing that comes out like that is likely to be confusing, cliché-ridden, unsure of what it's supposed to do. It's very unlikely that the plop strategy is going to achieve the type of response we're looking for.

2. The grunt strategy

Here's a second default to laying out your argument - the 'grunt strategy'. The grunt strategy seems more noble than the plop because it involves tremendous effort, sometimes eye-popping, effort. The grunt writer slaves over his work and spares no effort to make his case rational and logical. But he still ends up with an argument that looks like this:

 Statement, explanation. Statement, explanation. Statement, explanation.

William Zinsser - writing techniquesThere's a problem with the statement-after-statement approach. It’s hard to read. It’s artless. And no matter how logical or compelling the argument may be, no-one wants to read this format.  (It's why no writer has ever taken it to its logical conclusion and published a book in bullet-point format.)

Good writing requires more than just logic and hard work: It takes technique. So, my definition of a good technique is this one: It brings the reader in and involves her emotionally, psychologically, sometimes at the level of behavior. 

Thankfully, there are ways to do those things, alternatives beyond the plop and the grunt. It's a matter of choosing the writing techniques to suit the task.

 "Good writing requires more than just logic and hard work. It takes technique: You must find ways to engage, entertain, inform, involve the reader."

How a knowledge of writing techniques solves this problem

What happens when you start to learn and master the key writing techniques? Well, there are 13 immediate and/or long-term benefits:  

  1. They help you to complete your writing tasks. (Like arguing a case, for example.)
  2. You save time and avoid having to reinvent wheels.
  3. You avoid the common mistakes and pitfalls.
  4. You begin to learn to write more effectively and productively.
  5. You learn to get control over your message and get it across.
  6. You find an easier and more practical way to learn.
  7. You develop 'writing awareness'.
  8. You learn what to look for in any piece of writing.
  9. You learn how to get the reader to respond and how to develop a relationship with readers.
  10. You learn the secrets behind the best writing
  11. You deepen your appreciation of good writing and develop the aficionado mindset.
  12. You learn to distinguish good writing from bad. 
  13. You learn to reverse-engineer excellent writing and go back to the choices that make it effective

"You learn the secrets behind the best writing."

Writing techniques - John Updike

Applying the writing techniques

We can't do justice to exactly what a good knowledge of the right writing techniques will do for you. But one other benefit, that I didn't include on the list above, is how they open up creative possibilities for your writing - in the way that musical technique enables a jazz musician to improvise and create.

Let's go back to the question of developing an argument as an example. Here are some alternatives to the plop and grunt:

You could start of strong and help the reader understand unfamiliar things through the use of familiar thingsanecdote, metaphor, allusion, and so on. You could develop your argument in unexpected, and engaging ways. You make the argument concrete (so the reader can visualize something), and you could support your claims, you make the argument flow. You also You use the well-established techniques of argumentation to develop your case: Logic, exposition, evidence, etc. Then you re-write for unity, cohesion, and voice. All along you do this with a clear purpose in mind. (“Author’s purpose” is itself a writing technique.).  


Writing techniques: Blogging

Let's look at another writing scenario: Blogging. For the blogger, there are certain writing techniques that I think are essential. We can't cover them all here, but a certain number of them come from need for your blog to attract attention.

The rookie blogger assumes that everything  he writes is interesting to the reader - interesting enough to get everyone's attention. He believes this because he himself finds it interesting.  But the rookie is wrong. He's going to have to be more effective than that. You don't get that kind of response from the reader without knowing the techniques.

"The rookie blogger assumes that everything  he writes is interesting to the reader"

This means that the technique of writing strong headlines, for example, is essential to getting attention.  So, too is what I call finding the payoff.  'Finding the payoff' means  knowing  precisely the value that your post offers to your readers.  If the post lacks clear and compelling value then you've wasted your reader's time. This doesn't encourage the right kind of response.

I think blogging is a good example for us here, because blogging is defined a 'direct-response' medium. And in all direct-response marketing, the goal is to get your readers to do stuff: To read through the post, to leave comments, to sign up for a newsletter, to 'like' you, or to buy products. 

"... in all direct-response marketing, the goal is to get your readers to do stuff."

But there are other writing techniques that very much define effective blogging.  Voice, style, clarity and simplicity - all can go along way in defining your personal brand.  



Writing techniques should help your reader 

At this point I want to make something clear. Hopefully, you get the idea that good (that is, appropriate) writing techniques will almost certainly make you a more effective writer. But even that is only half the story. Because, ultimately, all writing techniques are designed to help, not just the writer, but to help the reader. That means your customers, the visitors to your blog, your followers, and so on.

"... all writing techniques are designed to help, not just the writer, but to help the reader."

As a writer, and in almost any writing  context, you have to give the reader a reason to read. You have to get her involved (psychologically) and make your writing clear, compelling, readable, and so on. But again, these things don’t just happen spontaneously. These are writing techniques that have to be learned.

Taking the reader’s perspective is critical (maybe even existential) to your writing. You must write for the benefit of the reader and you must use those techniques that help her to reach her goals (to understand the piece, to be informed/entertained, etc.). When you help the reader you help yourself.

"When you help the reader you help yourself."

In my estimation this makes the job description of the effective writer fairly stable across all genres: Finding interesting ways to present your content – ways that arouse the interest and the cognitive faculties of your readers, ways that make them think or interact with the book/post/report, ways that entertain or inform, or both. 

The more you know about techniques the greater the choices you have in writing and the more creative and persuasive you can be. In a sense, writing techniques are choices that open up liberating and creative options.  


How long will it take to become a better writer?

If anyone tells you he can convert you into a world-class writer overnight, he’s lying. It takes years to get really good at writing.   However, it is certainly possible to make real progress in ways that are immediate and inspiring. And I believe that’s a matter of using the right techniques for your situation. Let me explain.   How do I learn writing from seeing writing techniques?   I strongly recommend you read a lot and learn how good writers do it, because here’s what happens (and this is critical!): Through reading you begin to notice how good writers solve the problems that you face in your own writing. If you’re writing is dull, you read those writers who are known fir a lively style. If you need your writing to be more persuasive, find those wirters who are renowned fir that skill.  Soon, you will develop the skill of pulling from the writing those elements that you need to import into your own writing.  So, if you wanted to begin this evening, I’d say start with ‘close reading’ and looking for the things below the surface of what good writers do. That’s a habit you can from immediately.  

How writing techniques will transform your writing, your reading, and your appreciation 

Let's be clear about something: Good writing techniques will transform the way you write. That's the outcome we want. But we also have to consider the journey, the process of learning. The writing techniques approach has these powerful advantages:

  • You focus on writing techniques, rather than, say, grammar, which makes the learning more engaging.
  • You start to improve instantly - simply by choosing a technique to work on.
  • You learn from inspiring examples, not abstract rules.
  • You see how the best writers achieve their best work, which is motivating.
  • You begin to see what goes on below the surface of good writing - the secrets behind it - which is useful

Now that's just a partial list and it only concerns writing. But the fact is that writing techniques also help you develop a deep appreciation for reading. Once you're able to go below the surface of any text, it drives up your appreciation for good writing  - including the finest works of fiction and non-fiction. I believe an understanding of the best writing techniques will not only change your writing. It will change your life.

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