5 writing lessons from an industry pro

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I’ve been writing professionally for 35 years. Yikes! How did the time pass so quickly?

People often say you don’t really learn something until you teach it (the standard advice for medical students is “see one, do one, teach one”), and that bit of practical wisdom applies to writing, as well.

Here are the five most useful lessons I’ve learned over the last 35 years. If you write, these lessons will apply to you, too:

1. Write every day.

Writing is like exercise—it depends on repetition. Just as you don’t get to be an athlete by lying on your couch and eating Krispy Kremes, you don’t get to be a writer by talking about it. You actually have to do it.

That said, I’m not going to instruct you to write for hours every day. I know you don’t have the time. In fact, I’m convinced setting aside huge chunks of time for writing is the vampire’s kiss of death.

Writing works best when you let the words gradually accumulate, the way snow collects on the ground. I used to try to write stories all in one go. Now I do a little bit every day, writing or editing for a few minutes here or there, often between phone calls. The rhythm feels much more natural. It’s easier and more fun, too.

2. Focus on stories and metaphors, not information.

How many press releases and email newsletters do you file away without reading? How many stories in your daily newspaper do you ignore (assuming you still even attempt to read a daily newspaper)?

If you’re like most people, you read only a fraction of the words put in front of you. And I’m willing to bet the articles you’re most interested in are the ones that tell stories or take complicated ideas and show how they apply to you.

Too many writers focus on facts. We’re all drowning in information. What we need is meaning. We want something interesting. If you aspire to be read, tell stories and use metaphors. Give your readers context-don’t just dump information.

[RELATED: Get advanced writing and editing tips from Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela.]

3. Employ the power of mindmapping.

I discovered mindmapping late in my writing life. I’m now like a reformed couch potato who’s suddenly discovered the gym. I feel so good that I want you to exercise, too.

And here’s the great news: With mindmapping, you never have to break a sweat!

Mindmapping is a super-easy technique that will help you tap into the creative, imaginative and fun part of your brain. It makes writing much easier. Learn more about mindmapping, here.

4. Don’t be afraid to take a stand.

I’ve given up trying to predict which columns I write will resonate with the most people. Columns I like barely draw a peep, while columns I think are mediocre bring in a flood of ecstatic email. I’ve also noticed that the articles that draw the biggest, most enthusiastic response also tend to annoy the most people.

This is because strong opinions will make some people dislike you. But strong opinions will also bring out the people who love you. As my mom always said, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” Never fear breaking eggs.

5. Count on the kindness of strangers.

My writing has given me the chance to connect with hundreds of fascinating people from around the world. I’ve received charming and heartbreaking emails, and benefited from support when faced with hackers, hard drive failures and even health problems.

Writing is about connecting. I’m honored to be able to do that with you.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Measurement Standard. 

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