Magic Words

Happy Birthday to me

It’s both my 29th birthday and my 2nd anniversary of being a freelance writer in June.

Quite a few blogger friends have also asked me for advice this last month, stuff like how to deal with difficult clients, how to find work and how to beat the dreaded procrastination monster. It feels weird to be asked for advice because I had all these questions two years ago. And now that I’ve been through it, I’ve got to the stage where I'm able to help other writers. It also got me thinking about where I am in my freelance career, how my style has improved and what mistakes I’m still making.

So in celebration of my second year of working from cafes and stuffing receipts in my exploding tax folder, I’ve written a blog about what I’ve learnt, including writing tips and tricks that I stumbled across -

Darling buds of May

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So, first things first, if you want to be a good (or better) writer you need to suck it up and become a cutthroat editor of your own writing. It’s one the most important hurdles I learnt to get over, especially when you need to delete a section of great writing that doesn’t fit or is making the entire piece worse.

William Faulkner says it best - “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings!”

When you delete something that is great on its own but doesn’t work within your piece it makes your writing better as a whole. It might be the best two lines you’ve ever written but if it’s stopping your creative flow and reducing the quality of your work, you need to bin it.

A good little tip: If you can’t face deleting a gem, I often save the phrase or paragraph in a separate document with a memory-jogging title, in the hope of using it again one day (which often actually comes in useful).

I am my own worst enemy

Taking the ego out of the writing process is another golden piece of advice I would give any writer. You literally need to get over yourself and focus on making your writing good, even if that means listening to some home truths. You need to kill the ideal writer image in your head and actually become the real-life writer.

Realising that all first drafts aren’t good because they aren’t finished and that stringent editing and practice is king (or queen) will improve your words. Writing is a process and not a race, concentrate on honing your work instead of walking away if it’s not perfect or how you imagined it to be.

And in the age of social media overshares, try not to compare yourselves with others too much. Everyone has different styles and is at different stages, concentrate on being happy with your work, because that’s what counts.

If you have clients, value their feedback, whether it’s negative or positive. In my experience, encouraging constructive criticism is one of the best ways to improve and stop yourself floating above reality. Stay a grounded writer to protect and hone your skill.

Magic Marker

I’ve also found that when you are so worried about what others think, how crap the first draft is or how much better other writers are, you start to creatively choke and open the door for a nice stint of writer’s block.

There are also a lot of people who talk about writer’s block as ‘the fear of the blank page’. Two years down the line, I actually think it’s fear of producing shit words and what that could do to your self-esteem. But if you flip that around and think that it’s better to have words written down than nothing at all, you start to produce more work. If you write more the likelihood of you producing some pretty decent work goes up.

If I could hop in a time machine and give my 27-year-old self a golden nugget of advice I'd put this up in lights – ‘Writing is just writing down words’.

That might sound too obvious but so many writers (my younger self included) think that it’s some elusive craft that one day just flows out of you, like witchcraft. It’s actually just a lot of time spent throwing up on the page and then slogging to make it better. Sometimes it works straight away and sometimes you have to redraft 29 times. It’s just the way it goes and doesn’t mean you need to put down your pen and resign yourself to a writerless life.

Have a look at my blog about writer’s block which I wrote in my first months of freelance writing, and you’ll see my ego floating about all over the page. As soon as I put my ego back in its box, my writer’s block vanished.

Strip off

Another thing you should avoid like the plague is flowery language.

Whenever I spot a writer using flowery constructions and overly complex sentences, I always know that they haven’t got to the stage where they don’t need to prove something and just write. We’ve all been guilty of it, at one point or another.

When you first start off you really want to show how many words in the dictionary you know. So you stuff them into each sentence and watch them fight it out for attention. Hey guys, look! I’m a writer, I know a shed load of words! But what you actually do is take away from your sentence because your readers are stumbling over complex structures and overly fussy registers.

What you soon realise is having the guts to strip down your writing and hone in on simple but sharp wording is crucial for the tone and quality of your work. And the only way to get to that point is with lots of practice and editing. It takes guts, patience and good judgement to start using your pen to skim through and delete your carefully constructed thoughts.

To strip my own work down, I go over each sentence multiple times and think which word could be swapped for a simpler word that is just as effective. For example, the paragraph above I nearly wrote ‘simple but eloquent writing’ and changed it to ‘sharp’, it’s less snooty and does the same job.

When you write simply you also leave space for the beautiful. You leave space to play around with words, grammar and even add a bit of poetry in an otherwise relaxed piece of writing.

To me, a writer doesn’t need to show off, they need to make an impact. And the more you do it the more you grow in confidence and start stripping your writing down to its soul.

Funny Bones

Being funny when you write also takes a while to master (I’m obviously still working on it). It takes a while because it doesn’t always come naturally and can seem forced. It’s also so easy to flip the switch and just sound arrogant or rude. Getting it right can be tricky and can result in a treacherous game of word vomit.

I’m much more comfortable adding my own blend of funny on the page than I used to be because I realised people like reading things that make them smile and think. My humour also shines out the most when I write quickly and don’t overthink, much like how we joke with friends and family accross the dinner table.

Adding more humour to your writing also doesn’t go from 0-100, it comes with being more comfortable with your voice and caring less what other’s think. Understanding how to write for your audience and for yourself is a delicate balance – but getting it bang on can give you word magic.

Primal truths

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It’s also hard to really be yourself and show as much of your personality as possible. It’s especially hard when you are shouting it loud and proud from a digital microphone. Having your exact thoughts and ways of expressing yourself splashed across the internet takes a long time to get used to.

I used to have minor heart attacks whenever I pressed the post button, so much so that sometimes I wouldn’t even post it. For anyone still struggling, it gets better with time, but you have to be in the game or to quote my favourite quote of all time ‘risk it for a chocolate biscuit’. And your heart will flutter a bit, but your writing will be out there, and will bring joy to at least one more person than you - Isn’t that one of the reasons we all write?

I’ve also started to show my own voice and beliefs more clearly on the page. I think because I stopped thinking I needed to hide who I really am to write well. I recently started learning flamenco and the dance teacher said something to us which I’ve taken on board for my own writing:

“When you first learn flamenco you’ll naturally start by copying exactly what I do, even down to my mannerisms. But eventually, you’ll learn the steps and grow in confidence. That’s when I know that you’re starting to get it, when I see you start to dance with your own personality.”

When you watch flamenco dancers they’re mesmerising because they completely inhabit the dance. They follow steps that they’ve learnt to craft over time but are crucially dancing to their own personality, which makes each dancer unique. And that is exactly where I want my writing to be at all times.

Knowing me, knowing you

Baring all when I write is also good for my clients and my business, because they know who I am from the start and are more likely to share the same mindset and business views as me. And I’ve found starting off on the right foot has brought about much healthier and fruitful relationships. It makes sense really, If you hide who you are, clients will want to work with you for the wrong reasons which opens yourself up to a whole lot of professional risk-taking.

Honesty is key, in my opinion. If you take one thing from this blog then I would say - write honestly and be yourself. The rest will follow suit with patience and a whole lot of practice.


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This article was written by: Sara Benaissa