Writing is at the core of my business life, and it pretty much always has been.
I’ve worked as an in-house marketing director, a freelancer, and the founder of successful businesses. Writing was a cornerstone of all of those.
And along the way, I’ve discovered some toxically terrible pieces of writing advice that get repeated all the time.
It’s not just that the advice isn’t true — it’s actively keeping people from improving their skills.
So let’s dive into it! Here are five pieces of advice that don’t serve you, along with thoughts on how you can pursue a more useful path.
#1: Talent can’t be taught
The idea that writing well comes from talent, and talent is something bestowed on you at birth, is something a lot of people accept without question — and it’s just wrong.
The only “talent” we get is the innate gift of language we share as a species. Which is wonderful.
But the people who have a knack for the written word did not get extra neurons in the special writing part of their brain. Not did the writing fairies sprinkle them with magical talent dust when they were babies.
Study after study has shown that what we call talent actually comes from work.
More specifically, it comes from something called deliberate practice. (More on that one in #3 below.)
Now, if your primary endeavor is basketball, you probably need some innate qualities to get really good. (Height and wingspan, in particular.)
But if you’re primarily a writer, you can learn to be really good no matter what equipment was handed out to you.
You may have some innate traits that make you more chatty, or that cause you to respond in a particular way to language.
Or you might innately be more quiet and reserved.
Turning your own innate abilities into good writing is a skill.
And any writer can become more “talented” by studying craft, starting from where they are today.
#2: Business writing isn’t creative
I’ve heard this a lot of times, from otherwise very smart people, particularly about the persuasive side of business writing.
“Copywriting is about selling, not creativity.”
Honestly, I find this whole line of thinking a little silly.
Creative work is interesting. It engages our attention.
And being boring or generic never made anyone more persuasive.
We all know how much business writing gets pushed out every day on the internet. Web pages, social media, blogs, scripted podcasts.
And most of it is, in fact, boring and generic.
Which means it gets ignored. Which means it can’t serve its business purpose.
Learning to write with more richness, texture, and vibrancy makes for better business writing.
Are there a few guard rails? Absolutely. “Creative” is not the same thing as “self-indulgent.”
But every kind of writing (including most poetry and literary fiction) follows some rules. The rules of business writing don’t make it harder to write well.
#3: “Just write” … for 10,000 hours
Ever since Malcolm Gladwell wrote Outliers (and ignored big chunks of the research he cited), we’ve had the idea that we need to put in 10,000 hours to become really good at something.
But just putting in more hours will not actually make your writing measurably better.
if you were a pianist, playing “Chopsticks” for 10,000 hours would not make you a great pianist. (Although I would admire your tenacity and tolerance for boredom.)
And writing the same things over and over will not necessarily improve your style, your writing voice, or your skill.
Growing as a creative professional is about putting time in on the right kind of work — what’s been called “deliberate practice.”
That’s work that stretches you creatively, and that is neither too easy nor too difficult.
As writers, our deliberate practice includes learning the techniques of vivid writing, then practicing them.
Writing hundreds or even thousands of generic “listicles” will never make you great.
But you can learn to become a wonderful writer by studying technique, and applying what you learn to the writing that you’re already doing.
It doesn’t need to take 10,000 hours. Those hours will come when you enjoy your craft enough to do lots of it.
You can become a terrific writer sooner rather than later, then build on that to keep getting better and better.
#4: You need to learn to write for search engines
Business writers are told that we need to learn to write for search engines.
Man, have I seen a lot of horrendous writing cranked out to make search engines happy.
Here’s the business reality:
You need to learn to write for humans. Then you can learn to tweak for search engines.
Google’s algorithms will never become your customers. They don’t have the ability or the desire to buy what you’re selling.
And the people who write those algorithms work tirelessly to block writing that was written, first and foremost, to appeal to them.
Search engines want to find web writing that’s been created to serve human brains.
Once you have a handle on that, you can go in and make a few modest changes to make it easier for the algorithms to find you. It’s well worth doing — as long as it doesn’t screw things up for human readers.
Humans first. Always.
#5: It’s hard to write well
It’s natural to think that writing well is harder than writing badly.
But in my experience — and I have a lot of experience — exactly the same amount of effort goes in.
Now, good writing does take more polishing, and that reflects some time. So a piece of good writing often takes more minutes to create than a piece of sloppy writing.
On the other hand, a good piece of writing also tends to be much more effective at driving a business result than the sloppy piece does — which means you don’t need to publish as often.
In the end, the time put in is probably pretty comparable.
Vivid, textured, interesting writing is not harder to write than boring, generic, or clichéd writing.
It’s not a matter of bending your brain to “be better.” It’s not a matter of banging your head against the wall to come up with a crazy new idea that no one has ever seen before.
It’s a matter of learning some craft, and then applying that learning when you’re sitting at your writing desk.
Writing well doesn’t take more energy or willpower than writing badly does.
In fact, writing well is much more fun than writing badly. Which means you’ll want to do it more often. Which means that getting your practice in is enjoyable, not miserable.
Let’s talk about the writing workshop!
A few years ago, I launched a fun project called the Remarkable Writing workshop.
It was all about writing better — without working harder.
We spent six weeks learning the techniques that make for “good writing” — tailored to content creators who had deadlines to meet and business objectives to serve.
The Remarkable Writing Workshop is returning later this month, and we’d love to have you there!
Here’s what we cover in this six-week program:
- Adopting better tools to generate tons of ideas and keep yourself motivated
- Developing and strengthening your writer’s voice
- Uncovering the perfect word to convey your meaning
- Using metaphor and storytelling to make your writing compelling
- Structuring a great piece of content
- Polishing your work to a gorgeous high gloss
I also include a “Shark Week” bonus, where we talk about what makes writing persuasive. You can use these techniques for sales pages, emails, blog content, or anywhere else you want to convince your audience to take action.
You also get three full months of implementation sessions, where you can get your coursework done and start to develop your rock-solid writing habit.
(Those implementation sessions are why this is the course you’re actually going to finish. They give you lots of dedicated time to do the assignments, ask questions, and stay on track.)
Right now, it looks like our first live session will be on April 21. That session will be a free workshop on cultivating a steady writing habit.
I’ll hold sessions on two different times, to accommodate time zones and work schedules. And of course, everything will be recorded if a date isn’t great for you.
If you think you might want to join us, either for the full course or for the free workshop, drop your details in the form below this post — and remember to check your email and click the confirmation link there. (I really hate spam, and I know you do, too.)
Special note for folks who have taken this course before
For folks who are already in my Creative Fierce premium community, you get access to this course as part of your membership. (Deal!)
If you’ve taken the workshop in the past but aren’t currently in the program, and you think you might want to take it again, shoot me an email and we’ll get you a honking big discount code. 🙂
Additional details are coming shortly, so stay tuned!
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