7 writing secrets from professionals

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Very few people are natural-born writers (myself included). It takes practice, precision and total concentration. A bit like flying a plane or cooking a pavlova. But after you've clocked your 10,000 hours or so, something amazing happens. You start to relax and get into the groove.

That said, I truly believe anyone can become a better writer – without the blood, sweat and tears of professional training – if they work at it just a little.

One of my favourite things to do (and sadly I don't get to do it much now I run my own business) is mentor junior writers who are still stuck in that stiff, formal 'university essay writing' stage every graduate must go through.

Here's what I always tell them:

1) Get everything out. Write a stream-of-consciousness draft first. Without paying attention to grammar or structure, get what you want to say down on paper. This is the all-important starting point you can build on. 

2) Make it make sense. Now that you have all the pertinent information in front of you, you can start editing for clarity of expression and sentence structure. 

3) Vary your sentence lengths. A colleague who used to work in newspapers mentioned this to me in passing once and I think about it all the time. It's just so true. Consider it 'the rhythm method' of writing. Somehow, copy reads better when you open with a short sentence, followed by a long sentence, followed by a medium sentence, and so on. Not in that particular order, but just so there aren't several sentences of the same length strung together in a big block. 

4) If you're stuck, go to the toilet or have a shower. No idea why this works, but it always does. I'll be working on something at my desk for ages and feeling completely uninspired. As soon as I get up to do something else, the good ideas come. 

5) Write 3 pages in a journal each morning. I started doing these Morning Pages – a concept Julia Cameron writes about in The Artist's Way – maybe five years ago after attending a workshop hosted by one of my mentors, Lou Robinson. It's improved my writing like nothing else. When you take the time to empty your mind first thing so it doesn't cloud your creativity during the day, you notice the difference pretty quickly. It takes me a pleasantly meditative 12 minutes. After the second page, all these crazy creative ideas come pouring out of you. 

6) Read your copy out loud and change anything your tongue trips over. In 2003, I did an internship at Channel 7 and was most taken aback by everyone reading their scripts out loud in front of their computers. But of course they would! I tried the same thing and realised your speaking voice is more capable of picking up mistakes than your lazy eyes that gloss over what they don't like. A sure-fire way to pick up anything that's not quite flowing well is to read it out loud.

7) Always proofread final drafts on HARD COPY. Screens are tricky, nebulous things and they tend to hide mistakes from you! I pick up 10 x more errors on paper, as well as finding more ways to improve my copy. When my printer died, I noticed the quality of my writing went down because I couldn't cast a true, critical eye in the harsh light of day. 

If you don't have access to a printer, not to worry - turning your Word doc or Google doc into a PDF will do in a pinch. Make the PDF then read that on screen. Or on your phone. Not as good as paper, but changing formats will help your eye refresh.  

These are just a few of the processes and tips I use daily on the job. Many more to come in other blogs. If you have any, do let me know in the comments.

- Penelope Langton