Many dream of becoming a published author and turning writing into a full-time job. Others simply strive to capture their thoughts, experiences, and stories in writing to share with a few friends and family members.
Whether you’re hoping to become the next Stephen King or you want to start or grow your online blog, learning from experienced writers about the writing and editing process will help get you started.
We sat down (virtually) with writer, editor, and writing coach Ben Riggs of Riggs Writing, LLC to learn more about how he approaches the writing process and what he recommends for someone interested in starting on their own writing journey, either as a hobby or career.
How did you begin your journey as a writer? How did you discover your passion for writing?
I asked for a typewriter for Christmas when I was about nine years old. My mom already owned one, which had belonged to her dad. There was something romantic and whimsical about sitting down to that cold metal machine and watching it come alive with clicks and clacks as I watched words and sentences form from ink-shaped letters that smacked against a piece of paper. The one she bought me—a blue and yellow plastic one from those now nostalgic JCPenney Christmas catalogs—became ground zero for me in many ways. I used it to write about everyday goings-on and weekend events: the mission to rescue our blind cat from behind the couch, the case of the missing LEGO set, and other fine tales, often gluing photos from our family albums to my weekend editions. Sorry, Mom.
My passion was cultivated by teachers over the years, particularly my English teachers. I didn’t recognize their investments in me at the time, unfortunately. Even though I couldn’t say then that I “loved” writing, I’m thankful they took the long view. And their investments have since led to dividends and returns in me I’ll never be able to give back to them.
Every writer has a unique approach to writing. Describe your writing process.
Nearly every piece of writing follows some process of “Idea, Collect, Focus, Draft, and Rewrite.” Not every portion of that process is as realized as the others, but I do try to make sure I’ve visited each one along the way. At the end of the day, though, I zoom out and see the particulars of the writing process existing between two questions: “What do I want to say?” and “Have I said it?”
I write for myself to answer, “What do I want to say?” I rewrite for the reader to answer, “Have I said it?”
For me, drafting is the process of thinking to write and writing to think. And it’s vital I think of myself as the first reader, remembering no one else sees those first words but me. If I think about the anticipated reader too soon, I fall into what William Zinsser called “the tyranny of the final product,” where you prematurely envision a published piece of prose before it exists. And there is no quicker way to slam the creative brakes than trying to write something better than a piece of writing that doesn’t exist.
When I feel confident that what I want to say is contained somewhere in the cacophony of clauses, I move toward answering the question “Have I said it?” This is when I think about the reader and the reader alone, remembering that when I’m finished, all the reader will have are my words. They can’t call me to ask “Hey, did you mean to say it this way or that way?” This is when I make a million decisions about word choice, word order, punctuation, cutting clutter, and the like. As Verlyn Klinkenborg says, “Prose is the residue of decision making.’
Why do so many people struggle to get started with writing?
For those who aspire to do more writing, whether for personal or professional reasons, getting started feels like trying to cross this expansive chasm between “wanting to write” and “having written.” They metaphorically see the other side, where everyone is enjoying having written, but they forget that anyone who’s ever crossed that chasm has done so the same way: word by word. I realize that sounds simplistic, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve talked with writers who have amazing ideas and incredible things to say, but they were fixated on arriving to the land of “having written” to the point where they forgot there’s only one way across the chasm: words on the page.
In your experience, what is one obstacle to writing well?
Believing that readers want to be wowed by expertise rather than needing to connect to and care about something that’s stated clearly.
Is writing well subjective?
Brooks Landon, author of Building Great Sentences, wrote that effective writers anticipate and satisfy readers’ needs. I like that because it offers an objective basis to what we might call “writing well.” It means your writing is indelibly shaped to meet a reader’s first needs for accuracy and clarity. A writer who hasn’t fought to be accurate and clear doesn’t stand a chance to connect to a reader. Once you connect to a reader, then you can inform, entertain, etc. Beyond that, the subjectivity is in how readers’ needs change based on what they’re showing up for; someone reading a movie review in The New Yorker has different needs than a new mom reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Even so, both of those readers need to connect to writing that they trust is accurate and clear. If they have to work too hard to move from sentence to sentence or to understand what’s been said, it’ll go to the wayside.
In your article, “Six Ways to Improve Your Writing,” you stated that there is a “myth that says the world is full of ‘gifted’ writers, who effortlessly spin readable, error-free prose […]” Can you explain what you meant by that?
Much of this gets at the role that mindset has in our writing: what someone expects of themselves as a writer and from the writing process anticipates a lot of the way they’ll try—or avoid—writing.
The language came from a conversation I had with a group of high-schoolers I was coaching. Some didn’t think it was worth their time to learn how to write better because they weren’t “gifted” like others in their grade level. When I pressed further, I learned they felt some students could churn out exceptional writing the way a light bulb emanates light at the flick of a switch. Great writing, just like that. For these supposed “gifted” writers, their first draft and final draft were the same thing. No rewriting required. This meant these other writers, whom I quietly called “struggling writers,” were destined to always struggle and never arrive. Their life forever contained Roman numerals alongside clunky outlines and drafts that never had that perfect sentence right away. For them, rewriting was punishment for not writing well the first time.
Now, that doesn’t mean their peers weren’t great writers. Some were and are great writers. And it’s fair to say that they may have better intuition for mood, rhythm, etc. But it’s not true that they were born with a perfect draft in their hands. A key variable for these “gifted” writers is they were probably read to as kids and continued reading themselves (that’s a bigger conversation for another time). But they, too, are struggling writers. As we all are.
This invisible cleft between “gifted” and “struggling” writers made sense of some of my own anxieties when I began writing as well as the anxieties of others whom I had coached or taught.
Since then, I’ve often said that I don’t believe in gifted writers. Instead, I believe in struggling writers who don’t neglect the gift of writing.
The current COVID pandemic has forced people to work from home and to rely on written communication to convey information. How have you seen the role of writing transform over the last few months?
Beyond, but including, the need for accurate and clear reporting, the biggest thing I’ve seen was the deep hunger people have for clear written communication. Juxtaposed against the forthcoming bout of “Zoom fatigue” and a more pixelated existence, I’ve seen people pine more than ever for satisfying, compelling writing. Normally, I have friends asking about podcasts to download or Netflix shows to binge. When COVID-19 sent everyone inside and onto their computers, the question I received the most was “Read any good articles lately?”
How do you help individuals who want to improve their writing and take it to the next level?
I love meeting writers where they are, which often means I’m talking with them more about how to think differently about writing than about how to actually write differently, though that happens. I’ll talk about finding themes and where to place commas with anyone any day, but once writers learn to have more confidence in themselves, they become more willing to embrace the hazards of the writing process. And they often know more about what makes for great writing than they think they do. What most need is a better starting point for thinking about writing and various aspects of the writing process.
For the better part of the year now, I’ve met with folks who write for pleasure or for their professions through a coaching rhythm I call “Lunch-Break Writing Coaching.” When everyone went home during the first height of the COVID-19 restrictions, I thought I’d meet with folks while they were taking a break during their lunch hour to talk about writing. What started as a small way to offer one-off writing help turned into a burgeoning request that’s now going through 2020 and into 2021. Some organizations have now folded it into their formal professional development rhythms. I think it shows that everyone who uses words wants to feel a little more confident about how to be clear in their writing. And slowing down this spring reminded everyone of that.
What tools and resources do you recommend to help writers improve their writing?
Read books by journalists and their editors. These are the folks who’ve learned more than anyone else what it takes to meet deadlines and maintain accuracy and clarity in piece after piece, all the while making sure they kept their readers and their readers’ needs in mind.
One good place to start is anything written by Roy Peter Clark. Another terrific resource is the book Telling True Stories, which is a compilation of contributions from numerous writers and editors of nonfiction narrative. Writers of any industry and stripe should learn from veteran writers in the field of nonfiction narrative. More than anyone else, they’ve had to learn how to distill the grandiosity and complexity of real life into words that connect to readers to inform, entertain, and advocate.
For what it’s worth, I’ve recently published a small booklet about this entitled Tell Them a Story: Using the Best Lessons from Narrative Nonfiction in Your Everyday Writing, published by the Editorial Freelancers Association.
As for writing tools that help relieve some of the pressure, I encourage folks to look into installing the editing software WordRake or PerfectIt. I have WordRake and I run it through everything I write. It inevitably catches lots of great opportunities to sharpen and clarify a piece of writing.
About Ben Riggs
Ben helps others communicate with confidence and clarity. He is a writer, editor, and writing coach in Dayton, Ohio. He's married to his wife, Emily, and is an unabashed dog dad to Lewie. He's the author of Tell Them a Story, a booklet on using narrative in everyday writing. And he posts regularly on his LinkedIn page.
About the Author
Nicole Abboud-Shayan is the Business Development Associate for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, Nicole practiced law for several years and then launched her own media and marketing company. Follow Nicole on Twitter @nicoleabboud or connect with her on LinkedIn.