Scott H Young

Getting Good: How I’m Trying to Be a Better Writer


I have a confession to make: I’m a perfectionist.

No, not the debilitating kind of perfectionist, who can never finish a project, but the long-term kind. After publishing over a million words, I’m still convinced I can write a lot better.

I want to share what goes on behind the scenes, showing some of the experiments (failed and successful) I’ve done over the past five years to try to improve myself as a writer. My hope is that they will help you too, on your path to mastery.

Why is Getting Good So Difficult?

The problem is that just getting a lot of practice isn’t enough. K. Anders Ericsson’s research shows that, “adults perform at a level far from their maximal level even for tasks they frequently carry out.”

Repetition is enough for the basics, but it doesn’t lead to mastery. I’ve seen this in my own writing. In the beginning, simply writing every day was enough to force me to improve. But, beyond a point, more time spent writing didn’t make me better as a writer.

Ericsson explains that simply showing up to work isn’t enough. You need deliberate practice, hard and focused effort to fix weaknesses. Routine stymies growth; reorganizing the skill itself can be necessary to move past plateaus.

The research is clear: if I want to be a better writer, simply writing another thousand articles isn’t going to be enough.

Experiments in Mastery

This obsession with perfectionism has led to some interesting experiments to improve my writing. Most of them were only temporary successes, but that’s the challenge—today’s innovation becomes tomorrow’s routine.

Routine has a paradoxical relationship with mastery. On the one hand, if you aren’t consistently practicing, you won’t get growth. Showing up, every day, matters. On the other hand, if your practice is consistently the same, you also won’t get growth. Routine leads to plateaus.

During the last few years, I’ve done a lot of experiments to break my routine. Here’s a few of them:

  • Freestyle Writing – This experiment involved spending an hour every day writing, without trying to create something worthy of publishing. It had some successes, including my article on holistic learning, but I eventually found it too unstructured to get meaningful ideas.
  • Splitting Creative Tasks – I split my writing into two components: brainstorming topics and actual writing. In all, the experiment was very successful—it allowed me to keep up with writing 5-8 articles every week.
  • Keeping Book Summaries – A lot of the ideas I generate are inspired by books I read. For over a year, I would write a 2-3 paragraph summary of every book I read, after I finished it (I still have dozens of these). It wasn’t terribly successful, as I find my writing tends to go off tangents from a minor theme in a book, rather than a restatement of the main thesis.
  • Delayed Publishing – Another experiment I used was to split writing my rough drafts and editing. This was a successful experiment as it allowed me to get a fresh perspective on my writing that I would previously miss. (This article itself was a by-product of that experiment)
  • Changing Publishing Frequency – I’ve experimented with several different posting routines over the five years of running this blog. Haphazard, 5x per week, 2x per week, 1x per week to today where I write approximately 2-3x per week, split over different outlets.
  • Style Shifts – In addition to experiments in method, I’ve experimented with different writing techniques. List, how-to, long, concise, illustrated, researched, anecdotal, attention-grabbing headlines, interrogative, concept-oriented, solution-oriented and many more.

The challenge is avoiding complacency while still staying on a consistent schedule. Deliberate practice and skill reorganization are frustrating. I’ve often ended a work day in a bad mood after spending 4 hours working on a piece I eventually decided to abandon.

Injecting Deliberate Practice into My Work

In addition to skill reorganization, I try to inject deliberate practice into my writing. This is tricky, because writing is a moving target. Once I write about an idea, I get feedback on how to improve it, but I don’t get a do-over—every new article has to be unique.

One way I’ve tried to compensate for the shifting nature of my work, is by focusing my different writing outlets on different practice goals. Currently, my writing is split between four sources:

  1. Blog articles (such as this one)
  2. Newsletter emails
  3. Writing in my books and products
  4. Guest posts and external writing

The outlets are similar, but not identical, which allows me to craft a strategy to maximize my improvement in different areas for each one.

The blog medium keeps a permanent archive of posts, so there is more pressure to be original here. I avoid writing the same topic twice on this blog unless I can think of a substantially different angle. I use the blog to focus on the idea-generation aspect of my writing, and as a testing ground for new writing styles and topics.

The newsletter is similar to the blog, but without an archive. Since it’s younger than the blog, I use this as an opportunity to improve the technical details of my writing with existing ideas. My most popular emails have been taken from existing ideas from my 900+ articles.

This allows me to focus more on crafting better headlines and concise explanations, since I already have experience writing about the idea itself.

Books and products let me focus more on explaining ideas, rather than just attracting attention. Teaching well and being a good copywriter are related, but not identical skills, allowing me to practice explaining deeper ideas.

Finally guest posts and external articles are a more extreme example of the newsletter. Since the majority of the audience has never read the original idea before, I can use proven ideas and focus exclusively on their written execution.

For example, you can look at the progress I made with one idea, weekly/daily goals, here:

  1. First, as a blog article.
  2. Then, written about more extensively in my book.
  3. Explained in my newsletter.
  4. Written as a freelance article.
  5. Finally, done as a guest post on Zen Habits.

At each stage I got feedback and was able to improve my writing. The ending evolution of the idea resulted in adding around 2000 new readers and will probably be worth several thousand dollars of revenue.

Cultivating these different outlets allows me to deliberately practice one element of my skill at a time.

Cultivating an Obsession with Mastery

My feeling about getting good at anything breaks down to two ideas:

  1. Showing up, every day, is the first step.
  2. Just showing up isn’t enough.

For the first part, although my frequency has changed over the years, I’ve kept my consistency largely the same. I don’t believe getting good is possible if you aren’t consistently showing up.

As for the second part, the research shows that just showing up won’t necessarily make you great. Deliberate practice and reorganization of the skill are necessary to break plateaus and go further.

Complacency isn’t just the default, it’s incredibly difficult to avoid. If you don’t push yourself to improve, nobody else will.


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29 Responses to “Getting Good: How I’m Trying to Be a Better Writer”

  1. Thomas G says:

    “Keeping Book Summaries”

    Would you share those? I’m myself setting up a website where I send MY notes to people using weekly email, so if you want to get yours in the list I would be glad :)

    (note : no amazon or anything, just for the pleasure of sharing here)

  2. How do you get effective feedback? From what I can tell from reading about deliberate practice the feedback has to continually push you in the right direction — athletes have coaches, Mozart had his father, scientists have advisors and colleagues. I don’t suppose you have an editor (or do you)? Are blog comments the only feedback you have? Do you have writers you look up to who continually review your work? I guess that’s one of the issues of trying to apply deliberate practice to something like writing a blog — how do you get trustworthy, regular feedback that will tell you where to go?

  3. Luc says:

    Scott, je me posais cette question la semaine dernière, de savoir comment tu faisais pour écrire tes articles. Je suis heureux de voir que tu te lances dans le sujet, et j’espère que tu nous en diras d’avantage, notamment sur la façon concrète dont tu rédiges. Est-ce que tu fais un petit sommaire des points que tu vas aborder avant de rédiger ? Est-ce que tu réorganises tes paragraphes après avoir écris le texte ? C’est ce style de questions qui m’intéressent beaucoup ! Continue, Luc

  4. Scott Young says:

    Shrutarshi,

    Publishing blog articles is a great way to get feedback. Although individual comments aren’t terribly revealing, there’s tons of metrics I can use to measure how a post performed. Total comments is a good indicator, as is performance on social networking sites, links from other bloggers and traffic.

    In many ways I prefer this feedback, which is impartial, to the selective feedback of an editor or coach who may be more specific, but also is a far less representative sample of total readers.

    Thomas G,

    I’d have to read through them all, since they have personal entries as well, in order to publish them, so I won’t go through that here. But search the archives for “Friday Links” and many of them have a “From the Shelf” heading at the bottom, as a book review.

    Luc,

    Normally I make my corrections in place. I don’t do a whole lot of post-writing editing, beyond simplifying sentences or words. The body of the text tends to create itself as I write, and if I don’t like something, I go back and delete.

    Many writers prefer to write with minimal editing and then go back and edit, but I find this difficult to do since major edits disrupt the original flow of the piece. I prefer to make corrections and adjustments on the spot.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Well, Scott, regarding getting good, writing about writing about writing better is more interesting than just writing about writing better. Self-awareness, I think, is your strength as a writer. That sense of looking in at your own clockwork as writer, or teacher, or philosopher makes your articles more interesting than most. The topics on your site have been covered by other bloggers, but yours stand out and seem fresh to me because you’re able to illuminate the process of opinion-forming with sincerity and disinterest. Living past your comfort zone, and reading past your comfort zone is obviously going to make a writer more interesting. One way I’ve seen my own writing improve is by rewriting word-for-word passages by others that strike me as perfectly said. I would compare it to having your hand on the gear shift while an expert driver moves your arm at stride. Anyhow, keep writing. It’s always a pleasure to read – Jonathan

  6. Apurva Wilson says:

    The two ideas I liked were:
    1. Delayed publishing, and
    2. If one is aiming for Mastery, consistent practice is important but not enough. One has to continuously work on identifying and working upon weaknesses.

    The first idea took me back in the days when most of my time was spent writing for assignments and project reports at the university. I had this tiny circuitry in the reptilian and ego-maintaining parts of my brain which would hold me back from finishing my writings in advance or asking others to review my work before submission. Now, when I think about this, I guess I was preventing myself from getting a different perspective (either by giving myself a nap over the topic to gain a fresh perspective or getting it from someone else) on my writing before submission. The result – something less than excellent. Today, I no longer work on reports for the professor, but instead on presentations for Management of a world-class organization. However, I still continue with the same less-than-excellent ways. The idea reminds me that I have some things to be improved…

    The second idea that I liked is a very good explaination my mediocre results in the areas of skills improvement. I have always been putting a lot of effort in my skills development- not-so-consciously as a child and consciously as an adult. The results, anything but satisfactory and long-lasting! Based on deliberate considerations some time back, I came to similar conclusions as pointed in the article. I like the article as I could identify my own thinking with it and that it is just more crisp and clear.

    Structuring the idea with a few more points from my side would look like this:
    a) Identifying the skill to be developed (effort-gain matrix)
    b) Assessing one’s status-quo and understanding weaknesses
    c) Figuring out solutions for the weaknesses
    d) Practice till it gets etched as a habit in the brain
    The above is a lot easier than done. It needs obsession with observation, contemplation as well as external inputs (mentor, books, best-in-class, etc.).

    It would be interesting for me to know Scott’s take on other skills that he works upon.

  7. ah says:

    good post.

    totally agreed that showing up is necessary condition but not sufficient for success.

    buy adding variation need some practical creativity……

  8. Krishna says:

    I agree completely. I feel like so much half-effort work has been published, when people haven’t made it the best it could be. Best as our ability to make it would be.

  9. Scott Young says:

    Apurva,

    The other area a lot of my focus is on, with respects to mastery, is my business. However this is an even more difficult skill to work on than writing, since it covers so many different facets. I feel I’m much further along in my experience as a writer, than in business, even though I’ve been doing the latter longer.

    Jonathan,

    Thanks! It’s always difficult to keep my writing fresh here on the blog.

  10. Hey Scott,

    I feel the same way that you do! When it comes to my writing on my blog , I feel like I am a good writer, but still there needs to be a lot of improvement on my writing such as the mechanics some where down the road! I believe that every writer has their own w eakness, but they find unique ways to improve in their writing.

  11. Scott,
    I wasn’t much into writing before I started my blog. What I have been into for over a decade is learning, using, and sharing ideas and insights.

    I am definitely seeking out ways to improve my writing which will improve over time. I am also going to learn how to type faster through some type of course.

  12. Gabe says:

    Scott: Are you familiar with the deliberate practice strategies that Benjamin Franklin employed to improve his writing? If you scroll down to the pic of Franklin on http://lifeofasalsadancer.com/motivational/talent-is-overrated/ , there’s a nice long excerpt from a book all about deliberate practice on the specific writing improvement strategies that Franklin used. Might be useful.

  13. My friend Paul Wolfe of onespoonatatime.com writes a lot about improving, you should take a look at his blog if you have the time.

    I consider writing for my blog is like playing a game/match. It is like going out onto the grass and showing what you can do.

    But every athlete spends at least 100 hours practicing for each hour they spend actually competing.

    We writers often forget this, we don’t practice for 10 000 hours, we write for 10 000 hours and consider it practicing for 10 000 hours.

    That isn’t the same thing, we need to (just like athletes) do drills, study theory and keep practicing until we are perfect and beyond.

    I don’t do this enough, but it is one of the things I am working on and one of the things I consider vital to my future.

  14. kerrjac says:

    Here’s a writing recommendation that helped me in college and beyond.

    If you want to write on a subject, type up or write out notes about them in a traditional form. Make each note a distinct thought, quote, fact, element, principle, idea, etc. Then print off one or two copies of your notes. Take some scissors and cut up each individual note into a slip of paper.

    Next go through them in random order, and begin to classify them into groups on the floor. Let the groups emerge organically from the content of the notes and from your implicit thoughts. Also allow the groups to form hierarchies, sub-groups, pairings, etc. If a note fits into 2 groups, cut out an extra copy of it. And look for notes which serve to connect two groups, or which transition well from one to another. Place these notes in between the groups, like a concept-map.

    Ideally in the end, you have a fairly distinct structure on your living room floor. This structure serves as both an outline and a conceptual map. And all you have to do is portray it in your writing.

    This probably works best for people who are both visual and analytic, and for non-fiction essays (altho I’m sure it can be adapted). But even if you don’t do this exactly, there’s a lot to gain from understanding why it works: It allows your writing to emerge directly from the content you’re writing about. It demonstrates that simply by structuring ideas, you’re adding something to them. It hinges you to your topic, and uses real-world facts to implicitly find insight, rather than simply spouting off opinions. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a fun way to break down a topic and put it back together.

  15. Scott Young says:

    Daniel,

    I’d agree with you that performing isn’t the same as practicing (indeed Ericsson’s research concurs), but the issue is with getting good feedback.

    That’s incredibly hard to do in a “practice” setting when writing. When I write without publishing, I can’t get any feedback on the response for my work. Although I can subjectively evaluate it, or consult another coach (which is possible for sports) it results in fairly lousy feedback compared to being able to witness the reaction to an article.

    Part of my post was indeed showing how I’m coping with this absence of true practice by trying to infuse my various performance outlets with different strategies to maximize growth.

  16. Sam says:

    I was expecting some advice on how to improve my writing when I opened this post, but I didn’t manage to find many concrete tips. It might be worth mentioning Teaching Technical Writing Using the Engineering Method, which allows you to work on your writing at a fairly low level by applying a number of tests that will reveal if your text is suffering from a number of problems.

  17. […] Continue reading Tags: be a better writer, writing practice […]

  18. Sibyl says:

    Scott: I know you were addressing the science of good writing, but I wanted to let you know that I really thought this post was inspiring. I really appreciated what you said about pushing yourself to improve and I think all the exercises and commitment you have made to improving your writing is great. I think though you are right that you are a perfectionist :) because I have always enjoyed reading your work.

  19. Scott Young says:

    Sibyl,

    Well I’m not really an expert on what makes writing good. There are plenty of amazing writers who each have an opinion on that. My hope with this article was just to share my process of improvement with something in my life, rather than just discuss it in the abstract as I do normally.

    -Scott

  20. David Lawson says:

    Hey Scott,

    I have two suggestions to improve your writing.

    1) Aim for simplicity. Rewrite what you have written aiming to cut out half off what you said. You’ll quickly master explaining and understanding your article material.

    2) Have a personal development index card system. File new ideas as you come across them under topic headings. You’ll note new connections within that topic area and when you are in need of inspiration randomly pick a few index cards to make new cross-topic connections.

    Hope that helps.

  21. Scott Young says:

    David,

    Yes–the first is a practice I regularly engage in. I omit a lot of what I initially write in articles, although I can still improve further.

    -Scott

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  23. Seamus says:

    Scott,

    regarding the feedback you get and your response to the comment by Shrutarshi, surely using these metrics is incredibly imprecise. I would imagine they reflect more on the qualities of your ideas rather than on how well you express them. Granted the two are intertwined, but isn’t there a difference between an inspiring idea on which your writing had plenty of room for improvement, and an average idea about which you expressed yourself perfectly.

    Do you see this separation between the ideas and how they’re expressed, as I do?

    The feedback you’re using at can’t see such a separation. Can it?

  24. Matt Maresca says:

    Interesting take. I’ve heard people talk about the power of taking some time between when you write something and when you edit it. I’ve recently gone back to a book I had written and not done anything with, and sure enough I had lots of fresh ideas immediately upon starting to read it. Of course, this is an extreme break but I like the concept.

    Also, I rarely read anything that is fiction, but I’m thinking that I might be able to draw some creative ideas from reading novels and infusing these concepts into my own non-fiction writing. We’ll see how that goes.

  25. Samantha says:

    I am very fascinated by mastery, whether it is in writing or other areas of importance in my life. I first heard about deliberate practice in Geoffrey Colvin’s, Talent is Overrated. It is a great read.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  26. […] an excellent piece on Ericsson’s research and the idea of writing practice for mastery: Getting Good: How I’m Trying To Be a Better Writer. He offers several ideas from his own experience of how one can develop a plan to practice writing […]

  27. Leon says:

    I was wondering what books you’ve read about writing. Have you read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser?

  28. […] Getting Good: How I’m Trying to Be a Better Writer Scott H. Young is a recent find via Zen Habits (see below), a uni student who blogs about his efforts to maximise his potential. Here, he discusses how to practice deliberately, in the sense of, “with deliberation”. […]

  29. […] go even deeper, read this article by Scott Young that’s essentially about getting better at getting […]

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