Sally Kerrigan is a freelance editor and copywriter, and associate editor at A List Apart. She is trained as a librarian and can improv about information literacy anywhere. Snark along on Twitter.
Writing is intimidating. There’s this expectation of artful precision, mercurial grammatical rules, and the weird angst that comes with writing for other people. You start with a tidy nugget of an idea, but as you try to string it into language, it feels more like you’re pulling out your own intestines.
But you’re not a writer, so this isn’t your problem, right? Well, the thing is, writing is not some mystic art. It’s a practical skill—particularly since most of our online communication is text-based to begin with. When you write about your work, it makes all of us smarter for the effort, including you—because it forces you to go beyond the polite cocktail-party line you use to describe what you do and really think about the impact your work has.
Done well, it means you’re contributing signal, instead of noise.
No one’s born with this skill, though. We hear routinely from people who say they’d love to write for A List Apart or start blogging, but don’t know where to start. They feel unfocused and overwhelmed by the task. If this is beginning to sound like you, read on—because I’m going to walk you through how writing works, and how you can get better at it.
BUT WRITING SUCKS.
I mean, yeah. But I’m not asking you to write pages of flourishing prose in one sitting. (Hint: nobody does that, anyway. I’ll get to that.) I’m asking that you start with thinking. I suspect, if you’re a reader, you’re already a thinker—which means you’re halfway there. Really. Because writing—that first leap into taking your idea and making it a Thing People Read—isn’t really about wording. It’s about thinking. And if you can tell the difference between an article that knows what it’s about and one that exists purely to sell ad space, then you’re pretty good at that already.
Think about the things you had to look up on the internet just to figure out how to do your current job. Or maybe those things aren’t even on the internet—you learned from direct experience. You should write that stuff down, because when you connect your ideas into a written piece, you give voice and direction to something that otherwise just rattles around in the form of entrenched habits and beliefs—a resigned “that’s just the way we’ve always done it around here.”
Choosing the words to describe your work means you’re doing it on purpose. You’re going on the record as someone who thinks about why they do what they do, and understands how each decision affects the results. And developing this knack for critical thinking will also make you better at what you do.
Starting with something messy
Thinking: check. Now you just need to start putting your ideas on paper. Try not to reread until you absolutely have to, preferably on a different day altogether. Just think about what you’re trying to say, and jot the main ideas down. If you’re not sure how to finish a sentence, abandon it halfway through. If you want to write extensively about one particular idea but your mind’s moving too quickly to flesh it all out, paraphrase for now and move on to the next big point.
When the words aren’t forthcoming, stick to paraphrasing. That’s all outlining really is: paraphrasing what you’d actually like to write about. Worst-case scenario here is that you’ll end up with a lot of open questions you’d like to answer. “More research needed” is an open door, not a reason to stop writing.
If you’re anything like me, the end result of this first step is going to look a little like an outline interspersed with rants and probably a few side notes about errands you realized you need to run this afternoon. It is laughably far from something you’d share with anyone.
In other words, it’s a rough draft.
With this, you have formally started writing. It doesn’t look pretty, does it? And it won’t until the very end. But this is an essential part of the process. Have a look at what you’ve got. You may have to cut through a lot of the ranting (and certainly the grocery list) to get to it, but somewhere in there is the heart of your idea, the takeaway that you want your readers to have. Find it.
Imagine you’re showing a neighbor around your house before you go on vacation. Even if you spend an hour yakking about lasagna recipes, or the weather, or the latest gossip about your other neighbors, you’ll probably sum up the key points: the houseplants are here, the gas and water shutoff are there, and the cat food is under the sink.
Your rough draft is the yakking. You want to get to the cat food: your thesis. By the time your neighbor shows up and you’re out of cell phone range, the week-old gossip will be a lot less important than the cat food. Start with your main takeaway idea, and state it as clearly as you can in the early part of your draft. This is what you hope your readers will remember, and it’s what will organize and guide the rest of your piece.
For example, take this very article. I hope you’re enjoying the read so far, but the reason it’s really appearing here in A List Apart is not because I’m so terribly witty and insightful. It’s because I want to strip away the magic of good writing and explain the actual, learnable, non-mystical work that goes into it. I want you to come away from it thinking, “If writing is really mostly about thinking rather than wording, I could totally give this writing thing a try.” That’s the cat food.
I started outlining with this in mind, using very literal and awkward phrasing like, “Writing is a teachable/learnable skill that people should learn about more.” The good phrasing comes later, but you can see the glimmer of an idea there.
BUT I DON’T REALLY HAVE AN ARGUMENT. I JUST HAVE THIS ANECDOTE TO SHARE.
Most how-to documentation is just formalized anecdote. This is how we learn. Here is the thesis statement for nearly all training documentation out there: “This is what’s worked so far to attain this particular goal and will probably work for you, too.” That’s an argument! It’s hidden underneath just about all the advice that’s out there (including this article): “Here’s what worked for me when I wanted to accomplish [task].” It’s definitely worth writing down—consider how many Google searches are typically answered by precisely this kind of information.
Personal anecdote is hugely helpful, especially in a fast-changing field like web design and development. To turn your piece from a meandering narrative into something more substantial, though, here are a few things to think about.
First of all, why did this excerpt from your experience stand out to you, personally? Was this the moment something clicked for you regarding your work?
Secondly, why do you think things turned out the way they did? Were you surprised? Do you do things differently now as a result? When you spell this out, it’s the difference between journaling for yourself and writing for an audience.
Finally, is this something others in your line of work are prone to miss? Is it a rookie error, or something more like an industry-wide oversight? If you’ve tried to search online for similar opinions, do you get a lot of misinformation? Or is the good information simply not in a place where others in your field are likely to see it?
As an editor, I usually come in around this phase. This is also the point where you’re no longer writing for yourself and are instead truly writing for an audience. You may have had a loose theme you wanted to explore in your first draft, but at this point, we need to start thinking about your readers. Thanks to your rough draft, you’ve got a better idea of the central point of your article. Maybe there are even a few readers out there who will read that pithy summary and immediately agree with you.
But most people will need more explanation, or even some convincing, to come around to your point of view. This is where your supporting arguments come in.
The phrase “supporting arguments” probably recalls a few five-paragraph-essay-fueled nightmares for you, and I won’t pretend it isn’t a pain to dig back into your draft’s structure to work out strong organization. But supporting your main point isn’t something you do just for the invisible essay-graders out there. You do it for your readers—the ones who live outside your own brain and don’t benefit from shared neural connections.
A supporting argument, in short, adds weight and legitimacy to your main point by showing how it applies in related situations. Go back to your main takeaway statement, and imagine that a skeptical reader replies with, “Why?” Why is that claim true? Why does it matter? Or, better yet, “What does that do for me?” Sometimes you’ll need to show hard data. Other times, just fleshing out a good example will help your readers follow along. (The latter is the approach I’ve taken.) You don’t need to intimidate people with your brilliance here; it’s really more of a conversation than a debate.
How many supporting arguments are enough? Basically, you want to get to the point where the unaddressed “Why?” questions from your imagined skeptics are outside the scope of your topic. (“Why should I write?” Because it’s good for your work. “Why is it good for my work?” Because it helps you work more purposefully. “Why should I work more purposefully?” …Maybe talk to your boss or your therapist about that last one.)
It’s easy to see these “why” questions and imagine some kind of antagonistic mob. Most readers aren’t in this mode, though; more often, they’re simply distracted, and need reminders of what you were just saying—imagine someone with half an eye on a football game or one hand on an unruly toddler.
You want to be a friend to your readers here, in the sense that you want to respect their time and attention. Except in rare literary circles, there’s no good reason to make your readers work hard just to understand what you’re trying to say. Each supporting argument or illustrative example you include needs to connect clearly back to your main point; the whole thing is moot if your readers trail off before getting to the cat food.
Sometimes when I begin outlining, I make these cognitive ties overly literal so that it’s easier for me to keep track of where my own brain is going (e.g., “Explain why a clear organizational structure makes it easier for readers to keep their attention on your writing”), and later I’ll flesh out the language and section transitions to feel a little more natural (e.g., this section).
This is an ongoing part of the process, too. Once you start showing other people your drafts, a good question to ask at every stage is, “Did you get lost anywhere?” This is one of the few questions people are likely to answer honestly, since they’ll often believe “getting lost” is something that reflects on their reading comprehension and not your written organization. (Think again!)
And if someone does get lost? That doesn’t mean your argument is a lost cause; it probably just needs more coaxing out of the coils of your brain.
Getting to “good” writing
At this point you have the structure of a solid essay. In the editing world, this is pretty far along the path to publication; most of what remains here are line edits to improve word choice and sentence structure.
This is also where, unfortunately, word nerds get a little intimidating with their fervor. (Disclaimer: I am one of these people. Don’t take it personally. We live for these things.) This isn’t likely to be the stage that will break your essay. You’ve already put in the hard work by establishing the structure.
At this point, you’ll clarify meaning in meandering phrases, or perhaps reorder paragraphs to keep the narrative momentum running smoothly. It is decidedly different work from the writing you did earlier—sometimes more satisfying (it feels wonderful to get a sentence to really sing), but also with more hang-ups (instead of breezing along, now’s the moment when you really do have to make sure your grammatical tenses are all lined up). Here at ALA, we’re pretty rigorous about this stage, and generally get right into the article with our authors. Every publication has its own style, though; many newspaper editors are even more hands-on in the interest of maintaining a consistent voice, while a less formal blog might give each contributor a lot of room to allow individual personality to shine through.
Even when you’re not writing for a publication with its own editorial staff, this is a good point in the process to bring in as many fresh readers as you can. They’ll trip up on all those oddly phrased sentences, repeated words, or misspellings you’ve skimmed past countless times. And at the end of the day, if a typo slips through, or the grammar isn’t quite perfect, it doesn’t make you less of a communicator—which is really what this whole exercise was about.
I’ve encountered a number of people with good ideas who happen to hate the process of writing. I get it—even for people who write regularly, it can be a frustrating process. (By the time this makes it through copyediting and onto the site, you will be reading the ninth version of this article.)
But the payoff is so, so worth it. Wherever you are on your professional path, whether you have years of experience or a fresh outlook to share, writing your ideas down gives you a particular new ownership over what you do. It examines all the “whys” of the job, turning entrenched habits into intentional actions. It equips you with the communication skills to sell yourself and your work to bosses and clients.
This is what crafting purposefulness looks like. We need more of it on the web, just as you need it in your life. Not just wording, but thinking. Not just noise, but signal. Put your ideas out there. We’d love to hear them.