The 4 Things That Make Great Writers Great

Let’s be real. Almost anyone can write. So what makes a writer great? What makes one guy worth $50 an hour and another worth $150? It’s actually pretty simple, and it boils down to four things: an understanding of purpose, a thorough editing process, tons of practice, and a reliable process.

1. Great writers understand the purpose of their writing

All writing exists for a purpose. If you’re writing fiction, the purpose is to entertain. If you’re writing a biography, the purpose is to inform. If you’re writing copy, the purpose is to sell.

Whatever kind of copy you’re crafting—a sales page to directly close with prospects, an email newsletter to boost engagement, or a blog post to generate traffic—the ultimate, overriding goal of your writing should be clear from the outset. This is not optional. Without purpose, you’re going in blind, and that rarely works out well.

Copywriting ain’t about creativity.

Sure, there’s room to be a little creative in the process, but the ultimate goal of copy is to sell something—to seal the deal.

If a woodworker makes a chair, and it collapses as soon as someone sits in it, it’s a failure, plain and simple. Doesn’t matter how great it looked. It had a purpose and it failed to serve that purpose.

Copy is the same. It has a fundamental purpose. No matter how great your metaphors are, no matter how many advanced literary techniques you use in your writing, if nobody buys the product or subscribes to the service, it’s a failure. It hasn’t held weight. It had a purpose and it failed to serve that purpose.

2. Great writers edit their copy ruthlessly

Editors make sure your copy serves its purpose. There’s a reason marketing agencies, magazines, and publishing houses employee editors. It’s hard for a writer to distance themselves from their own work enough to see it objectively.

Writers can develop a fiercely protective attitude about their work. This is an unfortunate byproduct of the creative process. Where there was nothing, now there’s something, and the creator gets attached.

Your first draft probably sucks.

This is true for every writer, no matter how good they are. This is where editors come in. This isn’t just proofreading and checking grammar—the editor reviews the draft and checks for clarity of purpose, flow, repetitiveness, and other issues that can undermine the writer’s ability to seal the deal. It’s a critical part of the process.

So what do you do if you don’t have an editor? You need to learn to be ruthless. You go through your sentences and you carve them up like a Christmas turkey, throwing away the fat and the bad bits, keeping only the juiciest parts. Add a little gravy and some cranberry sauce and you’ve got yourself a damn good meal. But it doesn’t start that way. It starts as a big, raw turkey. It takes time, love, and some special seasoning to turn it into the delicious feast you want your readers to enjoy.

3. Great writers get tons of practice

If there’s one thing that separates someone who is good at something and someone who’s great at something, it’s practice. That’s all there is to it. The more you do something, the better you get at it.

Go through the greats in any field—Michael Jordan, Stephen King, whoever—the one overriding thing you’ll find is that they get up every day and go to work. They relentlessly hone their craft. And sure, one day it looks like they can just sink jump shots like nobody’s business. Nobody sees the thousands and thousands of shots they missed. But those missed baskets are just as important as the sunk ones.

For writers, practice usually just means writing a lot.

Don’t just write for the sake of writing, though. Instead, write with a focus on continual improvement.If it’s a client project, ask them for results—traffic stats, clicks, conversions, whatever. Identify areas for improvement and try to beat the results next time.

And if it’s for your own blog, you can track similar stats, and you can also focus on improving your first drafts so that editing time is reduced. Identify the most common edits you make to your work and try to keep them in mind as you write.

4. Great writers follow a repeatable process

People that are great at something don’t just dive into it blind. They have a well-defined process that they follow to produce predictable, consistent results.

This is also true for writers. Professional writers have a process. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or involved, although it can be. But it does need to be clear. A great writer can tell you on the spot the exact process they followed to produce a deliverable for a client. It’s the map from point A to point B.

Here’s my general process for blog content:

Everything starts with research. I learn as much as I can about the client, topic, and audience. At this stage, I’ll define the purpose of the writing, which shapes everything that comes after. As I research, I’ll piece together a rough outline of what I want to say and how I want to say it. Then, I’ll take that outline and fill it in as a first draft.

Most of the time, that draft requires more research to complete. Depending on the topic, that could mean interviewing customers, using a piece of software, or digging into a company’s history. Generally, research is the most time-consuming part of any project, but it’s essential to produce copy that works.

Edit, edit, edit some more.

The draft is followed by at least two rounds of edits, where I tighten up sentences and alter the original ideas to fit into a cohesive whole. Then I’ll format the document, either to client spec or the way I feel would be most effective, and send it off. The client may have revisions they want done, and then we finalize everything.

After the copy has gone live, I always follow up to see how it’s performing and what could be done differently next time to improve (even if it’s performing great, there is always room for improvement). This helps me not only serve the client better on the next project, but also improve my own writing.

Plus, when you can demonstrate the exact monetary value of your copy, it becomes much easier to charge what your work is worth, but that’s a topic for another post.

The specifics of my process are constantly evolving.

But that’s the rough overview. Being able to demonstrate your process not only helps you work more effectively, it also helps show your clients that you know what you’re doing and that they can depend on you to produce a consistent result.

And that’s it. Purpose, editing, practice, and process. Those are the four things that separate the great from the rest of the pack.

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