Blogging for Devs

2 Proven Methods That Will Make You A Better Writer

Monica Lent published

Tell me if this rings true to your experience: Written communication is a skill that most developers have, well, under-developed.

After all, aren't we being paid for programming, not prose?

I don't have to tell you that remote work is probably going to be the "new normal", and the number of Slack-induced misunderstandings has probably definitely skyrocketed since the beginning of this year.

But writing isn't just about writing good documentation or understandable emails.

Good writing is about learning how to tell a story that supports your argument.

Did you know that the human mind is 22x more likely to remember a fact when it's part of a story? Did you also know that stories are more persuasive than facts?

Even technical articles and conference talks can benefit massively from storytelling (because stories are what people will remember).

In this week's edition of Blogging for Devs, I want to share the two most important ways to improve your writing and storytelling abilities on a daily basis, as well as practical tips for implementing them.

How to become a better writer

Method #1. You have to read. Ideally books.

There are a ton of reasons that reading actually makes you a better writer:

  • You get stories to include in your own articles. If storytelling is so important for good writing, where will your stories come from if not from reading?

  • You get ideas and inspiration. Reading motivates you to write because it reminds you of how enjoyable it is to read something well-written.

  • You get quotes and references. Referring to authorities in your own writing is an useful way to back up your opinions.

  • You get to improve your style and vocabulary. Pluck out different writing patterns, phrases, and techniques from published authors apply them yourself.

The more you read, the more mental material you accrue for your own writing.

One of the best books I've read recently was Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott. The entire book is a series of stories that illustrate creative thinking principles.

Some of the stories are from the author's life, but many of them aren't. They come from books about World War II, biographies, published studies, and all sorts of other sources.

What makes the book impactful is that it's not just full of opinions every lesson is backed by a story that demonstrates it in the real world.

You believe it because it's based on something that actually happened. And you remember the lesson it because it's wrapped in story.

Reading books in particular is important because you want to control the quality of information you're taking in.

If I had to guess, you've probably read some email today, taken a peek at Twitter or Facebook, and maybe browsed some top articles on Hacker News or Reddit (I have, too).

But how many of those sources are actually worth emulating? It's helpful to keep those kind of sources in balance with the ones that can enrich the way you write.

Method #2. You have to write. Even when you don't feel like it.

Stephen King is one of the top five highest paid authors in the entire world. He made $17 million in 2019 from his books. He's said it more succinctly than me:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. Stephen King

In an interview with The Paris Review, King revealed that even after getting literally hit by a van, he was still writing 1,000 words per day. Down from his usual 2,000 but still.

This principle of persistence doesn't just apply to writing. It applies to pretty much anything you want to get better at.

John Williams is the world's most successful film composer. There's zero doubt in my mind you've heard his music. Williams has written the scores behind Jaws, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, and Superman.

He's scored over 121 films during his career and still creates music every day:

Well, I take the occasional Sunday off. Mind you, there are good days and bad days. A lot of it is rubbish! But it’s the process. It’s picking up the pencil, writing it, having it played, moving on.

It's not about reaching perfection with every work product.

It's the process of doing it that makes you great at it.

Not so different from learning to code, eh?

Practical tips for building a reading and writing habit

These are a couple of things that have worked for me in creating a reading and writing habit. They may or may not work for you, but I encourage you to find out what does :)

Read or write first thing in the morning

The reason is simple: You'll feel great knowing you've done it for the rest of the day. You have more time to enjoy the feeling of having written something and being proud of yourself if you take care of it early.

It doesn't have to be fun, you just have to do it. It will feel just as good, I promise.

Get up earlier

One of the main reasons people don't read and write regularly is because they feel like there's no time for it. If that's you, the most effective way might be just to get up earlier.

Most people spend their evenings on non-productive activities like watching TV or surfing the Internet, so if you can shift one of those waking hours into the morning, you're more likely to get things done.

Now, there is a very real possibility that morning people have something in their DNA. Anecdotally, I'm a morning person as long as I love what I'm doing, so that's the key for me to get up earlier.

Build your habit into an existing habit

This is called habit stacking. Once you have an established habit, you can connect new habits you want to form onto the existing habit. This makes it easier than creating a habit out of the blue.

A less fancy phrase for habit stacking could simply be "creating a morning routine piece by piece".

For example, I drink coffee every morning (out of passion or necessity, I'm not sure anymore 😉). I've stacked my reading habit onto my coffee-drinking habit. This makes it way easier for me to spend an hour every morning reading, while I drink the coffee I would be having anyways.

Develop an accountability system

Accountability systems can take all shapes and forms. One example of a system I have is this newsletter.

Every week, I need to write it. The newsletter goes out on Fridays. I feel a sense of accountability to the over 1,500 people who have asked me to visit their inbox on a weekly basis to use that appointment slot in a helpful way.

You can set up a similar accountability system in a lot of ways. Maybe writing your own newsletter, creating a publishing schedule, or finding a similarly motivated friend and creating a buddy system will help you stay on track.

Visualize your goals or progress

Why do you think so many developers love filling in green squares on GitHub? It's because visualization of goals or progress can be a powerful motivator.

Since I started reading more books on a Kindle, it's easier to visualize my progress towards a goal of a number of books to read for the year on Goodreads.

Everyone is different, so it's important to figure out what works for you. It could be setting a reward for yourself once you reach a certain goal or tracking metrics about your reading and writing. Maybe you want to reach 500 email subscribers by Christmas, or 1,000 followers on Twitter who look forward to your articles. Maybe you just want to commit to 500 words per day.

Whatever it is, you can use that to keep yourself on track and create a positive feedback loop. As they say, "What you measure, you improve"!

What does your reading or writing habit look like?

Do you have one? What is or was your biggest challenge with making it happen? What was the key to doing it successfully?

If you're a newsletter subscriber, I'd love to hear your response via email reply!

Otherwise, if you liked this article (and maybe it even motivated you a little bit), it'd be awesome if you shared it on Twitter or within your network of colleagues and friends.

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