Bird by bird

6 ways to write like a writer

Few people are writers but everyone has to write, even if it’s only an email to accompany their CV. Whether you are writing a social media post, a project report or a cover letter to a prospective employer, you need to get your message across in a way that is clear, comprehensible and letter-perfect.

I write for a living, which means I can’t afford to get it wrong. My clients come to me for copywriting and editorial support on documents that need drafting or ‘doctoring’ after rounds of revisions. Also, I write as a hobby. In addition to my corporate communications blog, I blog about life in France, am currently completing a memoir and starting work on a novel. When I’m not writing, I’m usually reading.

One of the most treasured tomes on my bookshelf is ‘Bird by Bird’ by writer and humorist Anne Lamott. Offering ‘some instructions on writing and life’, it wraps up nuggets of wisdom in simple, down-to-earth stories from the author’s own life. The title was inspired by one such tale about Lamott’s little brother, and how he became immobilized by the enormity of the task at hand: completing a class report on birds that he’d had three months to write and was due the next day. Her father sat him down and gave his son the best advice any writer could ask for: ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Breaking any big job into smaller, more manageable pieces can help move it forward. The important thing is to get it out of the starting blocks. Because let’s face it: even for those of us who do it for a living, writing can sometimes feel like pulling teeth.

Here are 6 tried-and-true tips to get that job written quickly and professionally.

1. Think before ink

Writing is thinking. Thinking is writing. This may seem obvious, but when I realized that half the work of writing something is thinking it through, it got a whole lot easier. Before you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, think about what you want say. The more clearly you are able to define your subject in your mind, the easier it will be to write that first draft.

2. Create an outline

Using an outline to organize your writing will make your life easier if you have a complex topic to tackle, or if you must follow a specific format like the inverted pyramid in news writing. Start with a simple list of bullet points, roughly organized into sections, then fill them out as you go. What’s essential is having a roadmap.

Writers are of two schools of thought when it comes to outlines. There are those create a detailed outline first (known as planners), and those who figure it out as they go (so-called ‘pantsers’ for the expression ‘flying by the seat of your pants’). This writer uses a hybrid approach: I have an idea, rough it out in my mind, start writing, develop a more detailed outline, write some more, revise my outline, etc. Writing really is an iterative process.

3. Do a messy draft

One of the things that all writers agree on is the need to complete a first draft before you start editing. Learning the importance of the messy first draft was hard for me, as I originally trained as a copywriter. In advertising, you don’t show anyone ‘messy’ work. You have ideas, and brainstorm sessions that you thrash out with designers, but the words you present are well polished. Now, forcing myself not to continually go back and self-edit, tweak and wordsmith as I write saves me a huge amount of time. It is only once you have a draft of your work that you can most effectively bring the sharp point of your editing pencil to it.

4. Step back

Once you’ve written that first draft, it is best to step away from the keyboard. Try letting the dust settle on your thoughts for a day (or overnight, at worst a few hours) before you go back to it. It will pay off in perspective. You’ll see the big picture and how best to strengthen it when you put a bit of distance between you and that first ‘vomit’ draft.

5. Get advice

One of the golden rules for writers is to always get feedback from others. No matter how hard you work at writing a perfect draft, it can only benefit from another pair of eyes. Ask a colleague, a friend or a professional editor for help. They are sure to see things you’ve missed and make suggestions about what is not clear.

6. Proof like a pro

Spelling, grammar, typos….your friends may forgive you for that Facebook post but in your professional life, don’t take chances. As a rule, never write something and just hit ‘publish’. Use spellcheck. Even better, print it out and make corrections. Then read it out loud. Twice. Those details make all the difference between polished and unprofessional.


Ready to tackle that next writing project? Maybe you already have an outline. Maybe you even have a messy first draft. Maybe you haven’t got a clue. If you need the help of a professional writer and editor to help you get the job done, let’s connect!


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