Three steps to better writing

Writing is hard. It’s hard for even the best writers. But it can become easier with a few simple steps.

The first goal is to devise a plan of action. No more writing and hoping a theme will pop up. (Busted). Here’s three steps to help you get started. I’ll add future posts about the nuts and bolts of good structure.


Step 1: Identify your audience. (Pro tip: It’s not “everyone” )

Why is this critical? Because it will determine the tone, how deep you’ll go with details, and it will save you from writing an encyclopedia because you don’t know where to stop.

And academics out there–write for your audience, not your peers. Too often, we write as if our peers are staring over our shoulder. To impress them, we opt for jargon or high-falutin words and tie ourselves up in pretzels trying to sound like what our field supposedly demands. Lawyers write incomprehensibly. Economists end up saying things like, “dis-optimal decision making.” It can get ugly out there.

Step 2: Identify the big idea (What is the piece about?)

Identify the one idea that can carry the report. Not twelve. Not even three ideas. One. The big idea.

To figure that out, step back. Ask the writing-101 question: Why should my reader care? What is the value of this project to my reader?

Let’s say you have to boil down your five-year research project on rising costs of housing into a blog. Impossible, you think. Nah.

I sometimes write a newspaper headline to figure out what the piece is really about. The first word in any good headlines is the key word (aka the theme), followed by an action verb. “Harris Joins Biden,” “Israel Relaxes Border …”  “National Chains Abandon Manhattan.”  You immediately know what the story is about. By having to decide what the first word in the headline will be and then what the action is, you are forcing yourself to zero in on the most important idea.

In your case, unaffordable housing. “Housing Costs Rise” would work (zzzzz). Or maybe it’s that the rising costs are leading to family struggles. “Family Finances Swamped by Rising Costs” Or if the main topic is rising costs, then: “Rising Costs Swamp Family Finances.” Or maybe it’s that the housing costs are undermining the economy. “Housing Costs Undermine Economic Recovery.” Or maybe it’s really about the impact on children. “Stress from Unaffordable Housing Harms Children.” With that, the piece is about the link between stress and children; a completely different theme.

Whatever it is, do the work and figure out the ONE big idea.

Step 3: Choose a structure

Next up is how to tell the story. Here are three options for how to lay out the information that work well for most things:

  1. What is, to what should be: the aspirational angle.
  2. Dark to light, bad news to good: problem to solution
  3. Chronological: then to now


Start with these three steps and I promise you will have an easier time writing.

Next up, some nuts and bolts for the actual writing part.

Ready to learn more? Get in touch.