Want to improve your writing? Let someone beat the brakes off your work

It’s no fun having your copy thrashed and throttled by a ruthless editor, but constructive feedback is essential for professional—and personal—growth.

There’s a clear solution for improving as a writer, but you’re probably not going to like it.

It’s OK; no one enjoys having his or her work shredded, altered, questioned or tinkered with. No one likes to feel unproductive, undercut or insulted. We instinctively protect our special word darlings with the ferocity of a mother bear.

Unfortunately, if you want to write for a living, you must develop elephant-thick skin. Writers should brace for a lifetime of confidence-depleting deleting.

In other words, you must be willing to let someone beat the brakes off you—editorially speaking.

If this sounds harsh, it is. It hurts seeing your words and sentences slashed and eliminated, as if they never existed at all. Who wouldn’t bristle at the thought of seeing the fruit of his or her creative toil vanish? Can you imagine a sculptor sending off his latest bust for “editing,” only to receive back an entirely different face?

A harsh edit can feel like the beautiful bust you spent long hours agonizing over just got face-swapped. However, improvement requires putting pride aside—and allowing more experienced hands to shape, sculpt, influence and enhance your piece.

Here are three simple (yet painful) ways to improve as a writer:

1. Get over yourself. It does you no favors to preserve your tender feelings. Your work is not special, and it is not above reproach (or revisions).

Before sitting down to write anything (or standing up, as Hemingway preferred), ask yourself: “Is this mostly about me, or is it about helping people in our audience?”

How many first-person references are in your piece? Are there any personal anecdotes or asides that aren’t completely necessary?

Talking to and interviewing other people is a great way to write more selflessly. Seek out niche experts on social media or through HARO who are willing to provide bits of advice and wisdom, and let their tutelage uplift your piece.

2. Submit yourself to a ruthless editorial process. Receiving feedback from an apathetic, timid or incompetent source won’t help you grow. Of course, a pair of fresh eyes is always helpful, but learning from an experienced, unmerciful editor is the best way to hone your craft.

If you’re not fortunate enough to have a keen editor on staff, create space in your budget to work with a freelancer. Seek out someone with the expertise to command respect and the courage to provide unvarnished guidance.

A meticulous, ruthless editorial process will drastically improve the pieces you create, which will heighten your standards, bolster your recruiting efforts and dramatically decrease the chances of a content-caused crisis.

Brutally honest feedback is essential—no matter what sort of communicator you are.

3. Serve the audience. This might mean taking out the section where you recount a personal anecdote. It could mean deleting an extraneous chapter—or killing a story altogether.

As Ragan’s executive editor Rob Reinalda frequently reminds Ragan staffers: “Serve the audience—not the author’s ego.”

Those marching orders apply to everyone writing for readers.

As you edit, look for extraneous details or phrases you could remove to streamline your prose. Do you have any “fancy” words that could be replaced with simpler ones?

Instead of selling, serve the audience. Cater to its needs, preferences and interests. That’s the first step toward compelling—and effective—writing.


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