As most of you know, I am a prolific writer. I have more than 1700 bylines in my career, spread across dozens of magazines and their companion sites, blog sites, and books. About half of those bylines were part of my tenure as editor-in-chief of ComputerUser magazine and, where I had daily, weekly, and monthly columns. That was an extended boot camp for what I have since written. Along the way, I have learned a few secrets of successful writing. Here I want to share the four most important ones.

Tip 1: Audience first, writer second

A lot of people get into writing because they need a creative outlet. They think if they emulate the great authors in history, they will be successful. While a few people do get lucky in this way, the vast majority of people who write what they want and hope for the best never get published, outside of personal blogs that rarely get read.

Most successful writers start by forming a picture of the audience and trying to get inside their heads. If you do that, you will write stuff that people will want to read, and you will have a much better chance of success.

Every writing textbook says you have to know your audience before you can write effectively for them. So that is nothing new. But when you ask writing profs how to learn your audience, you get a lot of blank looks. That’s why I wrote a book about it called Audience, Relevance, and Search. In it, I explain that we have amazing ways to learn the audience in digital.

The primary way is by using search engines as a proxy for what the audience is looking for. I won’t go into more detail than that. If you don’t want to buy the book, check out its companion blog Writing for Digital. I haven’t updated it in a while, but there are 70 or so posts that answer reader questions. It’s a good place to start.

“But what about my authentic creative vision?” Don’t worry. There will be plenty of ways to use your creativity when you become a successful writer. You will never get those opportunities in the first place if you don’t write for the audience.

Tip 2: Read more, write more

Before I took the ComputerUser job, I taught writing as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. My students often struggled with writer’s block. They described scenarios in which they stared at the computer screen for hours, frozen by fear. I must confess I started my writing career with periods of writers block. But deadlines have a way of forcing you to write what is needed and not worry too much about making everything you type perfect. Writing a lot tends to eliminate writer’s block.

Still, there are times I feel stuck. I feel as though the well is dry. In those times, I stop trying to write and I read. I read a lot as a matter of course, but I read more when I feel the well running dry. I have to add more words to the cistern before I can draw more words out.

I was gratified to see that I am not alone in this practice:

What should you read? That matters less than the volume of your reading. I read a lot of fiction, which I enjoy in itself. And, of course, I read a lot of what my audience reads so that I can write what is interesting to them. But if you don’t read a lot, don’t expect the words to flow when you need them.

Tip 3: Write once, edit three times

One of the reasons novice writers suffer from writer’s block is the desire to make the first draft pitch perfect. This is practically impossible. Better to just get your thoughts down on paper as a rough draft, leave it sit for a day, and revise. The second draft will be better, but still not ready for prime time. I usually make three rounds of edits in the following sequence:

  • Draft 1: Introduction and sentence outline of the main points. Why does the audience need this thing? Is it presented in the right order?
  • Draft 2: Add evidence. What data points or sources lend support to your claims?
  • Draft 3: Add your unique voice. What about your experience makes the story more compelling as told by you? Not every medium allows for first person. In those cases, inject your experiences through the eyes of your subjects.
  • Draft 4: Clean up each sentence to make it simpler and free of jargon or idiom. For each sentence, ask the question: how would a non-native speaker easily understand this sentence?

I always recommend a second set of eyes (at least) before you publish anything. But before you submit the piece to editing or peer review, craft four drafts. And allow a day or two between drafts. Good writing cannot be rushed, except at newspapers, which employ teams of copy editors to clean up writers’ drafts.

Tip 4: Always be outlining

Good writing stems from good thinking. Conversely, if your thoughts are muddled, so will your writing be. For any piece I publish, I probably put in a month’s worth of research and reflection before even starting a draft. I think about the problem I’m trying to solve in terms of how it affects the audience. I think about the most elegant solution in terms of the order of its components. I organize and reorganize in my head, taking copious notes. I am always outlining future work, so that, when I need to write about it, it flows.

I recently visited the home of Mark Twain in Hartford, Connecticut. It was the place where he created his highest volume of published work. I was gratified to see in his writing studio a set of vertical box files. According to the tour guide, in each box, he would have notes, outlines, and incomplete manuscripts of future work. He would take out one of those stacks of paper, and start working on it, a little bit at at time. When he would get stuck on one project, he would put it in its box and take out another one. This is how he wrote a dozen novels in the 15 or so years he lived there. He spent the vast majority of his “writing time” on outlining and reorganizing. Much of the rest of his time was spent rewriting and editing.

When you search on books for writing and editing, you get thousands of results. There are a lot of gems in there. Most of them boil down to these four basic tips. I hope these tips help you as much as they have helped me.