The secret missing element stopping you writing

Book-stack---originalAt its heart, writing is communication, and communication is something humans simply do. It should feel simple and natural, but the actual experience of sitting down to write can raise some unexpected obstacles. Suddenly, we don’t know how to phrase something any more. We flounder for ways to explain concepts that flow from us so easily in conversation. We wrestle with what to include and end up writing long rambling explanations of the things everyone understands, then condense the important stuff into a few abstract remarks.

Why is this happening? I know you can communicate. I hear you explain your ideas on the phone and I see your brilliance in action, and I can’t wait to read about everything you know so that I can start applying all that expertise… and then the invisible wall descends. Your fluid language evaporates. The ideas you know so intimately scatter like dreams.

Writing is different. Sometimes that’s because you’ve had a bad experience of it. Maybe school penalised you for not writing the way they wanted or taught you that this is a specialist thing that special writer-people do. Maybe you’re dyslexic and your teachers thought correct spelling and grammar mattered more than your flow of ideas and your wonderful turns of phrase. Maybe your previous struggles with it have gradually grown on top of each other, until they feel like a wall of negativity between you and your ideas. All of that comes after the fact of the biggest difference, though. In writing, an essential element of communication is missing: the other person. You’re sitting there with all the fluid ability to communicate and all the ideas, wondering why it’s not working, wondering what’s missing – but it’s not communication unless it’s to someone.

Writing books and blogs often stress the importance of keeping the reader in mind and I have my own tips for how to think about what your readers want and remember who your readers are. This treats the reader as a special add-on, though: a technique to hone your prose, not the crux and the crucible of everything you’re doing. Don’t just “think about your reader”: write for your reader.

Recently, one of my friends was struggling with his novel. He knew what he wanted to happen and the approximate shape of what he was going to write; his prose is impeccable, like a crystal knife cutting through smoke by the light of a street lamp; but the writing wasn’t happening. We made an agreement: he’d write for me. Every day, he’d send me his previous day’s writing and I’d read it and respond. We were in opposite time zones, so every morning I’d wake up to my latest instalment, read it over coffee in bed, then zip back an email to him. I wasn’t there to criticise or give feedback: just to be an active reader. Suddenly, he was writing in full flow again. The problem wasn’t his content or his prose: he just needed a reader.

The best way to practise writing for your reader is to actually do it. Pull out your client list of everyone you’ve helped and worked with. What did you do with them? What topic did you cover with most of them? Pick one small topic that most of them needed help with, then pick one client you especially like who struggles with that. Write a coaching section for that client, which you’ll send them as an email or a PDF. Follow the four quarters of well-rounded coaching to structure it, but write it for that client. This exercise will do more for your content, your writing flow and your style than you can imagine. And the real secret is: you can write an entire book like this, treating each section as a gift or a love-letter to a particular client. Because that’s how we really communicate: with other people.

Do this as an exercise, then send it to your client. You can also blog it or make it as a PDF to send to other clients, as added value and help. You can even write the entire content of your book like this, as gifts to clients, then work the content into finished-book shape.

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