How to write, 5 great tips from a writer – teacher

Last week, I had yet another conversation about what I do now: eyebrows were raised, when I said I’m a writer, a freelance writer, a copywriter.

I’m not sure what people make of this disclosure: do they find it amusing, odd or puzzling?

There’s an absolute flinty logic to it in my mind though as I’ve been a writer for 46 years, just to a very narrow audience of siblings, parents, teachers and since 1987, students. I model writing in the classroom. They are asked to produce a guide to a local area: I build the scaffold to allow them to create the building, the text, the article.

So here I thought I’d share some pedagogical tips for all aspiring writers:

  1. Be creative and spontaneous. Yes have a plan, an outline in mind or even sketched on paper or on your tablet, but don’t allow it to become your straitjacket. In exams, plans are vital – as I know from years of marking GCSEs and A2 papers, an examiner can look at the plan to see what you intended to say before you ran out of time, or collapsed with Steinbeck ennui, for example.
  2. Less is more. Stick to brevity and simplicity. Particularly if you’re writing for print materials or web content marketing. It can also apply to the crafting of fictional narratives: American authors like Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway are masters of maximum narrative impact from minimalistic language. Take “Of Mice and Men”, a copy of which will be laid on my grave, six chapters to tell the story of Thursday to Sunday with a crushed hand, crushed dreams and three deaths – all in under 200 pages.
  3. What your audience wants. Writing is often personal, revelatory and therapeutic, even cathartic. It can be incredibly powerful to you, but seen as self-indulgent by others. Think of your audience: my daughter eating her gluten free cereal each morning (yes she’s a coeliac, like me) insists on reading the words on the cereal box every day. It’s a ritual, a cereal habit (sorry), but the writer of that copy has written something compelling that will engage an audience – in this case, my 9 year old daughter, Ruby – every day. It’s what the audience wants.
  4. Make it circular or triangular. I’ve taught Media studies to both GCSE and A Level and know all about Propp‘s seven character types and Freytag’s Triangle. End as you begin. Refer back to the opening, square the triangle (I think) by ending with a backward wave at the opening.
  5. Summarise. Any piece of writing, particularly for content marketing, should end with a summary paragraph, picking out your key points and with a Call to Action. I’ve spotted on the cereal that the clarion call is to follow on Twitter and like the Facebook page. I’ve spotted this too on the streets of Gorleston – two businesses on Middleton Road have new shopfront signage and each has a Facebook icon. The Post Office in Acle, Norfolk, has a visual paper counter of Facebook likes with a request to like the page as you buy post office type things (in Acle, seriously, the post office is more like a pet shop with animal food and smells prominent). Those shops, that cereal is directing you to do something on social media. Your writing may end with CTA of email subscription, a social media follow, or a request to share.

I hope this has been useful for anyone wanting to be a writer, and sorry if it comes across as a bit pedagogical and didactic.

It’s those bells, like Quasimodo, you see.

28 years of regimented timekeeping, have conditioned me to be a teacher.

Now I’m doing it though to a bigger audience, not just the 30 facing me for 3 hours a week, with the grandiose title Freelance Writer, not English teacher.

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