10 Lessons from 10 Years of Writing
Or “The Lessons Learned Along the Way” if you’re not into that whole clickbait thing.
I think it’s safe to say that I’ve been writing stuff, first as a hobby and later for a living for around 10 years now. I’m sure this is the point at which my mom calls me tomorrow to tell me all about that short story I wrote about my toy bear when I was five. Keeping that in mind, I have to admit, 5-year-old me didn’t want to be a writer. 5-year-old me wanted to be a palaeontologist. Or an astronaut. Or an astropalaeontologist. Now, with my continuing mission, to boldly write one random piece every month, I was kind of stuck in terms of the topic I should choose. Sure, I could write about Umbrella Academy. That would be taking the easy way out. Not today.
I’ve rarely strayed from a basic review/essay formula when it comes to my writing for the blog. It’s a space I feel comfortable in, one I can easily navigate and go on a roll. Since spring has just started, I decided to tackle a different topic, one a bit more introspective, and one, for once, I don't know if I’ll get on a roll with. These lessons should be treated more like anecdotes about what I’ve learned, rather than instructions for you, so please don’t hate me if you know all of this already, or if it’s just plain wrong.
1. Just Write — But Never Force It
The first person outside of my immediate family to tell me I have some sort of writing talent was my high school Polish teacher. Back then, I would spend more time on the internet speaking and writing in Polish, writing stuff for roleplaying games, etc. He’d given us a free form essay assignment on some sort of existential topic. I think it was “to possess or to be”. For some weird reason, I came into this essay with a really loose writing style and a lot of witty wordplay that he really enjoyed. I got an A and the teacher would read his favourite parts to the class. Quite a proud moment.
At the time I was also slowly transitioning into the English internet. I’ve always felt a bit more natural writing in English, and while my Polish was a bit more polished (pun very much intended). That changed over the next couple of months and eventually, the teacher gave us another free form essay assignment, and me being the ever attention craving idiot I was (okay, still am, as proved by this blog post), I decided to make another fun essay. More wordplay! More absurd imagery!
It was rather bad, and the teacher told me as much. That moment became my first lesson. If I was going to have my own style, it had to be natural. You know how M. Night Shyamalan did two twist endings and then just wasn’t able to stop doing them, because it became “HIS THING”? Your thing can’t be forced, the character of your work has to be natural, because if it isn’t, anyone with half a brain will notice.
2. Perhaps Nobody Will Read Your Stuff. You Shouldn’t Care.
Eventually, having written a lot of stuff in various online text-based games, I decided it was time to venture outside the realm of what’s made up and into the wild, wild world of actually writing about the real world. I wrote reviews, I wrote political opinion pieces (man, I’m glad I can’t find any hot takes from 17-year-old me), and I don’t think a single person outside of me has ever read them. Well, maybe like one stray soul has.
Whatever the case, the value in each piece was completely different. I had to set up a blog for them, teaching me some basic web-related skills that can always come in handy (if this was YouTube, this would be a perfect place to segue into a Squarespace or Skillshare ad), and each piece would be meticulously crafted, re-read, published, edited, published and edited. A process that taught me that not only will you never be able to proofread yourself properly without at least a few days of rest, and that if you’re looking for your writing to be perfect, you’ll never publish it and it’ll end up in your blog platform’s trash bin.
Writing for writing’s sake. Posting for posting’s sake. They’re all good. They’ll all help you one day. The stuff I wrote on this blog back when it was self-hosted received maybe a hundred total views, but it still helped me get a job writing. In this day and age, the main goal of writing shouldn’t be to get views, it should be to express yourself, and if even one person enjoys it, you should be damn proud.
3. If You Want to Get Serious, Find a Cornerstone
If you want to write regularly, you’ll have to have a cornerstone. What is a cornerstone? A topic you base your writing around. If you want to write movie reviews, watch every movie you can and review it. If you want to write philosophical essays, better read up on your Nietzsche. Writing about random stuff is much harder than writing about a set topic. In my case, I found my calling in basketball.
I’ve written about this before, but the basic gist of it is that once I realized that every single sporting event can be used as a basis for some fun storytelling, I was off to the races. I started with rather bland articles during the 2011 NBA Finals, but these bland articles got me to Featured Columnist status on Bleacher Report before I quickly realized that I’ve just become a part of a digital sweatshop and bounced. I later got a shot at running a Suns fan blog and later joined then ESPN-affiliated GothicGinobili.com (RIP database).
The stuff I’ve written there features some of my favourite writing, and I’ll have to take a look around the Wayback Machine to see what I can salvage. Writing for a “free form” “wacky” sports blog really gave me the chance to play around with that idea of sports a story. Some of them were about basketball in relation to me, some of them were about basketball in relation to popular culture. One of them included Josh Smith influencing the Russian Presidential Elections.
Basketball became my cornerstone because it let me craft a story around everything I saw on the court. Whether it was a simple report or a piece about how one trade will destroy our planet, it was always fun and great for building consistency.
4. If Inspiration Comes, Write It Out
It might be my experience with night-owlish behaviours while watching NBA basketball, but it seems to me that I can’t just ever write a post in the middle of a calm Saturday afternoon. The idea always comes to me when I’m half-asleep, thinking about the next day and how well rested I’;l be, and just as I start to feel Morpheus’ warm embrace, an idea jolts me out of my near-slumber and forces me to spend the next few hours writing it out before it’s gone.
It was 2:30 AM when I stopped writing the first draft of this article, and I’m glad I did. I missed out on inspiration a few times, and I think I let some really cool concepts go by the wayside because of it. If you have the ability to, write as soon as you’ve got an idea. It’ll help.
5. Let Others Read Your Stuff
As I mentioned in point 2, there is one great way to get Writer’s Block, and that’s dumping everything into the trash. I know, I’ve been there. At a certain point, I couldn’t carry on watching basketball nightly due to pesky, real life obligations. I lost my cornerstone.
With my cornerstone gone, I lost my mojo. Anything I wrote felt off. I scrapped tens, if not hundreds of nearly-written blog posts just because something was off. Nobody ever saw them. Now, having learned that I’m usually my own worst critic, I wish I’d shown them to others. Maybe they weren’t perfect, but I’m sure that with a bit of polishing, they’d turn into something decent, had I only given them to someone else to read.
I’ve since adopted a policy, wherein if I finish an article, I’ll hit publish. Kinda like Stephen King does with his books. If the feedback is bad, it’s always a lesson. If people enjoy it, it’s a welcome surprise. So… Just hit publish. (by the way, in true advice-giving form, I was considering scrapping this article halfway through it)
6. Going All In is Risky, But Potentially Worth It
As I was finishing law school, a daunting realization came to me. After 5 years of learning all about the intricacies of Polish law, something just clicked, and I decided I’d like to do anything but that. Of course, the first idea was to become a writer — as a bilingual kid in Poland, I had a unique advantage. I was desperate for a job and looked through everything from customer support to game testing. Then, one day, I found an opening for a copywriter. I was sceptical as to whether I’d make a good copywriter, after all, my writing was mostly longwinded pseudo-intellectual rambling. But I went for it.
A month later, I had a new job. No more lawyer bullshit. On my first days of training, I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. My writing wasn’t rusty per se, but I didn’t have the confidence I’d be able to muster anything up. And then I got to work, and have been writing daily for the past 2 years ever since, which brings us to…
7. The Comfort Zone is Your Enemy
Ever since I started writing, I always did so in my comfort zone. Movies, sports, video games, those were all things I’ve been around since I was a kid. Now, I was suddenly not only writing stuff I wouldn’t usually write, for a completely different target audience, but I was also writing about stuff I had no idea about. Slots, Casinos, Poker, all pretty foreign concepts to me.
Yet, as soon as I was given my first task, the Writer’s Block gave way. Now forced to think outside the box, I discovered that with a bit of research, I could write about anything. Copywriting takes everything writers love about the craft and takes it away. It wrestles away your creative control, leaving it with people above you or your clients. It wrestles away the freedom of form, leaving you with limits to what you can write. It forces you onto a topic, whether you like it or not, and that is a real test of a writer.
A good comparison, I think, is “Scenes from a Hat” in Whose Line is it, Anyway? gives the stars a complicated improv piece to sell in a limited environment. A bad comedian will be clueless. A good one will go straight for it. Similarly, a bad writer will want more words, more space, more freedom. A good one will nod, and find a way around these limitations instead, eventually learning to use them to their advantage. There is nothing more satisfying than figuring out a way to fit more content into less text, and if you don’t believe me, you should try. (ironic, coming after a wall of text)
8. If Somebody Nitpicks You, Don’t Get Offended
Even though escaping the Comfort Zone is great, giving up creative control over what you’re writing will still always hurt. Writing is an immensely personal art that is invariably intertwined with our personalities. We all have our idiolects, our ways of phrasing things, yet, when you start getting paid, especially as a copywriter, you will find that you will have to accept that you will be nitpicked, you will be questioned, and some good ideas will be dumped.
At first, I will admit I took it a bit personally, with time, I started just hearing feedback. That’s the absurdity of writing. We all can write, thus we can all nitpick. It’s much harder to criticize a musician or a graphic artist when you don’t have a lot of knowledge in a certain topic — with writing, there is a feeling of “I could do that better.” If somebody approaches you like this, make sure you don’t treat it as an insult, although I’m sure some exceptionally dumb-and-wrong nitpicks might annoy you to no end.
What you have to remember is that you’re not just writing. You’re crafting something, a message, a call to action, a slogan. If you believe in it, you can make an argument for it that goes beyond “it’s fun, what more do you want.” At this point, if there’s a piece of copy I really believe in, I’m capable of giving reasoning for every word I’ve used within it. If I look at it, and I don’t have that reasoning, it can still clearly be reworked.
At the end of the day, those pesky nitpicks may annoy you, but they also help you affirm your own confidence in your writing and help you avoid silly mistakes. Nobody will always see eye-to-eye with you, so it’s down to you to prove to them that your way is right.
9. Build a Foundation, Master It and then Have Fun With It
After a while of writing in a rather unorganized manner, I started laying the groundworks for a foundation for my copywriting. I decided that there are two things that really fit the products I’m working with, namely, alliteration, rhymes and puns. Given that I was lucky enough to have a lot of freedom compared to other copywriters, and had an impact on most of the writing we put out, I could actually do it, and so, I started practising alliterating audacious amounts of words, tried to make sure that every slogan that fit the bill would get a cool pun to go along with it, and in lieu of that would at least get a fine little rhyme. Eventually, you’ll start feeling the confidence needed to start experimenting, like writing full-on limericks, haikus or entire alliterative sections.
Now, I know my first lesson was to not force the envelope when it comes to your style. This isn’t quite the same. It’s less expressive and more practical. Using some stylistic tricks in writing is more akin to digital artists using certain colour combinations. Eventually, when you really have a feel for it, you can go use it to great effect, but it can also backfire heavily if you go overboard, hence, handle with extreme care.
10. Always Try to Tell A Story
I’m going to admit to being a bit cheeky with how I structured this article. I divided it into little subsections, made it a listicle and tried to make it a bit more profound than it should be, given that I’ve just told you the story of the last 10 years of my life while assigning some random meaning to the various stuff I’ve done over those 10 years.
The thing is though, I think if you’re writing without the aim of telling a story, you’re writing wrong. Whether it’s a push notification, an ad on the street or a full-length novel, you should always try to engage the reader by selling them just that — a story. Even if it’s not a Tolkienesque epic, just giving a person a hint of a story will make them want to learn more, than if it’s just bland instruction.
10 years on, I’m still not a perfect writer. I still read back my stuff after a few days and see all the little things that could be better. I still go for long-winded, overcomplicated writing rather than just getting straight to the point. But hey, I’ve got more years and more lessons to learn along the way.
I wasn’t sure whether to publish this story since I don’t feel like I’m wise enough to be giving advice, even in the form of a simple post. However, I guess uncertainty is the cost of challenging yourself, and once a story is done, hitting publish is the only option. Here goes nothing.