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Improving writing skills: Getting started

Improving writing skills: Getting started

Skills

Having moved past the “inauguration post”, it’s time to start working on the hard stuff: creating content. And not just content. How Cal Newport puts it in his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love”:

“[…] the most important step of all: giving readers content they’re willing to pay for.”

I don’t expect to gain any money from my writing, but I would like potential readers to find quality content. Most importantly, useful content. I certainly don’t want to write whimsical nonsense just to claim that I own a blog. And here’s the tricky part.

I don’t know if anyone one else ever felt this way but I tend to think to myself “what possibly could I write about that hasn’t been written yet?”, and that thought for me is truly draining. Thankfully, I have people near me that offer me new perspectives on such matters. One of those people is my wonderful boyfriend, who by-the-way coded this website. He recently told me about this very well known developer who wrote a post exactly about this, saying that it’s not like he invents anything new when he writes, but he just does his best to put things in a new light. To give his own view. This got me thinking, so I dug up a bit on the matter.

The value of one’s view

Sure, you could say, is there any value in my view? I now think there is, and more so, I think it is the key to writing. Why? Let’s look at some numbers. Quoting Jay Conrad Levinson and David E. Perry in their book “Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters 3.0“:

“In the 1930s, the cumulative codified knowledge base of the world doubled every 30 years. In the 1970s, the cumulative codified knowledge base of the world doubled every 7 years, and in 2010 it began to double every 11 hours! What you go to bed knowing at night will be outdated by daybreak.”

So, in other words, there is little chance that you will invent in your writing something completely original, that has never been written or thought of before . And it’s ok, you don’t need to. Why? Because you can offer something else to your readers: your experience. That is indeed unique because although there might be tons of other people in your field of expertise, there is, again, little chance that there would be anyone out there with your exact same skillset and background. And I don’t mean background in your field, necessarily, but the background in general.

Your experiences and abilities (also known as “cultural baggage” according to one dear high school teacher) tailor the way you look at and understand the world and all that is in it. Subjectiveness in it’s purest form. And that tint that colors your gaze allows for a new perspective on any given matter. This perspective of yours could be really useful to your peers because maybe you could be able to explain something in a way that it’s easier to understand for some people, and therefore add value to whatever topic.

The power of background doesn’t stop there. It also gives you insights on a specific combination of subjects, which allows you to compare concepts and put them in a new light, and even create products that can mesmerize people. As Cal Newport explained about the career of Giles Bowkett, Ruby software programmer, in his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”:

“[…]Giles came up with the idea for Archaeopteryx, his AI-driven music creator. “I don’t think there was anybody else with my combined background,” he said. “Plenty of Ruby programmers love dance music, but I don’t think any of them has sacrificed the same ridiculous number of hours to tweaking breakbeats and synth patches over and over again, releasing white-label records that never made a dime, and studying music theory.” In other words, Giles’s ability to produce a Ruby program that produced real music was unique […]”.

As you can see, your perspective can be a really big deal. 

Starting: the only way to improve your writing skills

Ok, so, we’ve established that there are indeed topics for anyone to write about. What’s next? How do we start?

I think the first step is to define what you want to write about. What topics you are interested in enough to do some research if necessary, and what do you know about? There is a very well-known rule-of-thumb for writing: “Write about what you know” . In other words, you need to know about something in order to be able to write, and it’s easier to write about stuff you already know than to first go through a learning process, which takes time and effort.

So, do you have a list of topics ready yet? No? It’s ok, we can work on that.

There are several ways in which you can come up with topics. Personally, I’m a very good friend of the “let’s leave this in a background process” technique . This requires you not to force topics (or anything) out of you, and just let it be, go on with your life, tasks, and chores. While you do it, your brain will keep working in a background process. The effect is similar to when you forget a word, try to remember it and it only comes to you hours later. But it does come to you. This is the same principle. Set your goal (in this case coming up with some topic to write about), and leave it be. At some point, your brain will burst out an idea in that oh-so-wonderful “Eureka!” moment.

Make a list of possible topics you could write about. Improve your writing skills.

Photo credits.

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The only problem with this is that you never know when that moment will come. It might catch you on the supermarket, in the shower or walking your dog. Thankfully, there is this little thing nowadays called a “smartphone”. You can take note of your idea and come back to it later. If you are like me though, an “analog” type of person, you might enjoy carrying a small, pocket-size, notebook. Jot down your ideas, including a small description in case you forget, and then come back to it in a more suitable moment, maybe with a cup of tea and some soft background music to help you concentrate.

What happened to me when I started my own “topic background process” was that, without taking notice, I ended up listing over 50 topics I wanted to write about. At that point, I decided I needed to turn the “background process” switch off until I could cover some ground. In any case, and though I haven’t written all those articles yet, every now and then I get this mental splash and I keep adding ideas to my little list. It’s an ongoing process, once you open the tap, the water keeps on running.

After coming up with some subjects to write about, all that is left is to sit down and write. Sounds simple enough, though it may not be.

There is more about this I would like to cover, like useful tools, common fears and impediments, and then some. But that will have to fit in the second part of this article. If you’re interested, you can subscribe to my blog with an RSS reader. I should drop part II soon enough.

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