How to Write Anything Well: 3 Key Questions to Ask Before You Start
Good writing isn’t about grammar. It’s not about punctuation, vocabulary or whether to spell “all right” as one word or two.
I assume you learned — and promptly forgot — these things in writing classes in school. Someone might have even taught you these elements make writing good. They weren’t exactly wrong… but they definitely weren’t right.
What Makes Writing Good?
Knowing the rules of grammar, punctuation and style are important for polishing your writing — but they won’t make bad writing good. Gratuitous attempts at following the rules without first understanding the point of your writing will probably, in fact, make for a much worse reader experience.
I could list a lot of elements that actually make up good writing, but they all come down to one rule: Good writing makes sense to the people you expect to read it.
Everything else — genre, word choice, format, story arc, tone, sentence structure, everything you’ve read about how to write — works for (or against) that basic rule.
How to Write Anything — Well
Here are three basic questions to help you understand who your readers (really) are and what it takes to write something that makes sense to them — so, ultimately, you can share your message or story with the people who need it.
1. Who Are You?
Who you are has a serious effect on what you write, how you write it and how it comes off to readers — whether you intend it to or not.
The key question is: Why are you the best person to write this?
In relation to what you’re writing, think about:
What do you do?
What do you know?
Where have you been?
Why are you writing this, now?
To dig deeper into your personality and what makes you unique, you could also think outside of the subject. You might not find a place for these personal details in your writing, but they could influence your tone or voice and help you better relate to readers.
2. Who Will Read This?
Over nearly a decade of writing and editing, I’ve learned one secret that applies to every single thing you write (in any form, for any reason): You have to write for your reader.
Easy, right? Well, a lot of writers unknowingly write for themselves, their editors, their colleagues or even someone else’s reader. You could be making this mistake without realizing it — if you don’t know who your reader (actually) is.
I like to define readers with what I call a “reader story.”
To create yours, fill in this statement about the typical person you expect to read what you write: As a [type of person], they want [some goal] so that [some reason].
As you make choices about your writing, tie everything back to this reader story to ensure you make the right choices for your reader.
3. Why Are You Writing This?
The answer to this question will help form a foundation for your writing. It’s about finding your purpose.
How will your writing serve the reader? How will it help them achieve a goal?
As you write, you should think about this core purpose. It’ll get you out of your own head and keep you from straying into self-serving tangents (we’ve all been there) or unoriginal nonsense (there, too).
Answer these three questions before you start writing to write something that makes sense to the people you expect to read it.
Writing Well Is About Thinking Rhetorically
Pst, if you were fortunate enough to take — and retain the information from — a proper composition course in college, some of this might look familiar. My tips for good writing are based on a fundamental of academic composition called the “rhetorical situation.”
When I first learned about the rhetorical situation — a few years into my writing career — I was blown away that it wasn’t preached through every writing blog and book I ravenously consumed.
It’s so simple and basic. Using it will make you a better writer, even if you never figure out what an Oxford comma is (or why writers are always tweeting about it). It’s the key to sharing your message through your blog, books, courses, social media… anywhere you put words.
How to Write Well Using the Rhetorical Situation
We can get deeper into the details another time, but here’s the quick-and-dirty overview of this sitch…
The rhetorical situation is seven core elements that surround your writing: author, audience, purpose, genre, medium, stance and context.
Those three questions you answered above help you identify author (you), audience (the reader) and purpose (your why). I recommend using those to make decisions about the next three elements:
Genre (format): Choose what kind of writing you’ll do based on the purpose you want it to achieve.
Medium (publishing platform): Choose where to publish your writing based on the purpose you want to achieve with it and the best place to reach your audience.
Stance (tone and voice): Write in a voice that your audience understands and that shows them who you are.
Finally, think about the context in which your audience will read the work — what they’ll know, where they’ll be, what else they’ll be doing. Write in a way that will make sense to them in that context.
But What About Grammar?
As an editor, I can’t say don’t worry about the commas… but… don’t worry a lot about the commas.
Focus on creating a good composition first. Once you understand the rhetorical situation in which you’re writing, those polishing details are easy to pin down.