The Four Stages of Learning to Write

My grandfather, who was a TV screenwriter for over 30 years, once edited an essay I'd written for class and took out all the best parts. Or what I thought were the best parts.

"They're not the best the parts, the're just gimmicks," he said. "Every amateur writer goes through a phase, when you first start to realize you might be good at this, when you cram everything in, because everything you write just sounds so good."

He called it the Look Ma, I'm writing! phase, when you're first trying everything out: Long lists of adjectives, rhetorical questions, piling metaphor on top of metaphor, using italics to change voice, clunky dialogue, twist endings, repetition...

Every writer probably needs to go through that phase to learn how to use the tools, just like a painter would do exercises with oils, watercolors, acrylics, before finding their chosen medium and style.

With the benefit of hindsight, I've taken my grandfather's criticism to heart, and incorporated it into how I think of learning to write like a pro, breaking it into four stages:

The student: Most of us do this in school. Graduating from this stage requires two things: practicing the basic forms (3-part essay, news article, short story, poem, blog post, etc.) and reading a lot.

The amateur: 'Look Ma, I'm writing,' as above. This stage necessarily involves a lot of mimicry, as you imitate the masters and your own mentors within the basic forms. What you write in this stage may be good enough for your parents' refirgerator, but when you look back on it years later you'll be embarrassed at the excesses.

The journeyman: This stage is all about learning control and consistency. Where the amateur lists every adjective they know, the journeyman is learning how to choose exactly the right adjective. In this stage, your approach to writing is usually flipped on its head: Instead of experimenting with complexity, you value simplicity. Instead of trying to be opaque like Faulkner, you try to be clear like Peggy Noonan.

The pro: At this point, you put everything you've learned to work for others. You're a communicator. And, like all communicating, mastering this stage is 10% talking and 90% listening. Succeeding as a professional writer is about knowing your audience, knowing how to adapt your tools depending on who you're writing for.

Of course, it's not so linear. You have to keep reading and learning new tools your whole career. But those are roughly the four stages I've experienced, and many others have.


Summer Internship Closed

...obviously! Thanks to all who applied, and please apply again next spring.


NOW HIRING: Summer Communications Intern

For the second year, I'm running a summer internship program to meet increased client needs and train new talent. I'm looking to hire one graduating senior as a Summer Communications Intern.

The internship is paid, based in downtown San Francisco, and runs from May 30 to August 30, 2013.

The Summer Communications Intern will contribute to the full range of projects that come in the door, from drafting original content, to editing existing copy, to proofreading. You’ll work independently, with my full support and guidance. Throughout the summer, you'll learn the best practices of corporate communications, client relations, and the financial side of the business. Download the full position description here.

This internship has the potential to evolve into a full-time position. Apply now.



As a writer, I don't do my job with a pen, so much as a machete.

I spend less time adding words to things – websites, newsletters, whatever – than I do choppping out useless or unclear words.

The reason is simple: If something looks long, people won't read it. And more words often muddy your meaning. An idea you can get across in a single sentence is crisp, clear. Every extra adjective, every adverb, only serves to qualify your idea further.

This is only more true online. As my old professional writing mentor Will Sullivan explains, "People do not read online, because they scan."

Put Yourself in the Reader's Shoes

If your readers are scanning, and run into a "wall of text," they'll usually skip it. So really, tl;dr (too long; didn't read) is more than a meme – it's part of the culture of the Internet: Ideas should be broken up into useful bits, and useless ideas deleted.

Will's advice for this is to tweak Strunk & White, "omit needless words" to "omit needless ideas." In my job, I have to do both. I'll write a blog post, trim all the needless words, then I often cut whole paragraphs. The goal, as Strunk & White put it, is "that every word tell."

You also have to keep your writing focused. Leave out sub-ideas that don't support your main idea.

This isn't easy! It's much harder to communicate clearly and succintly than it is to ramble on. When you see it happening, put down the pen. And reach for your trusty machete.


Think Your Client's Wrong? When to Speak Up

Walked past this nugget on the wall at an agency I'm working with today.

Is that true? I'm not sure clients see it that way.

In my experience, clients look to us (consultants) for execution 85% of the time. They have an idea of what they want, and they don't want to hear all the problems with it.

Or, they have a very clear idea of what they don't want. As content creators, our role is often to put something in front of the client, that they can react to and share internally.

It's All About Finesse

Sometimes clients do look to us for original thinking and strategy, but if they do have some ideas, I wouldn't start off by knocking them down. I'd just start writing.

More often, clients are just trying to get a mountain of work done, and they're moving too fast to think through all the implications and do it right. As a consultant, if you know how to make the final product a lot better – without making it more expensive – then go ahead and speak up.

But I wouldn't approach it as disagreeing with the client. One trick that has been responsible for nearly all my success in business (to the extent that I'm still here) is this simple formula:

"Yes, that's a great idea, and [here's how we'll do it completely differently]."

The client will appreciate how quickly you understand what they're trying to say, and that you took it that extra 15% to make it better than they'd expected.

Then it'll get done right.