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6 Key Lessons From a Year of Writing

Old typewriter shows a sequence of words. Once you learn that rewriting is inevitable in all writing, you will have grown as a writer.

Old typewriter shows a sequence of words. Once you learn that rewriting is inevitable in all writing, you will have grown as a writer.

Another year of writing behind me, and I’ve only seen the process to be more intricate than I once thought. I’ve uncovered new lessons and reinforced existing ones. I’ve also had the pleasure of discovering so much more over the last twelve months.

And if there’s one key learning, it’s this: there’s no substitute for spending time on doing it.

Our Writing Journeys Vary

Wherever you might be on your writing path—absolute beginner, accomplished expert, or somewhere in the middle—you can always find something to improve.

I’d say I was a complete beginner at the age of thirteen, when my writing consisted of completing a daily journal for my English class. I can’t recall much of what I wrote, but I still remember how it was one of my favorite assignments. Math homework took a backseat every time.

At eighteen, aside from the essays we were forced to write in school, I hadn’t written anything long enough to be considered an article. I may have felt then that I would make a good writer for the school paper, but I never acted on it. That said, age eighteen was significant. This was when I first finished reading a novel, or novella to be exact.

Because I never found pleasure, nor patience, in reading. But until I came across A Study in Scarlet, the first book in the Sherlock Holmes series, the way I felt about reading changed. I realized that reading and writing came hand-in-hand.

I couldn’t write ambitiously because I hadn’t found my voice—and to find my own voice, I had to discover other writers’ voices.

6 Lessons from 12 Months of Writing

Needing to find my writing voice was the core lesson of my formative years. And in the last twelve months, I’ve found these six learnings to be immensely helpful in my own writing journey:

  1. There’s no substitute for doing the act itself.
  2. Having a writing style guide is indispensable.
  3. Be honest with yourself on what you want to write.
  4. Remember to write for yourself.
  5. Don’t be a snob.
  6. Write with the goal of helping people.

Lesson #1: There’s no substitute for doing the act itself.

Improving a skill requires commitment. Simply ‘showing up’ to write on a regular basis will do wonders for you, especially when done over a long period. This was challenging for me, because two weeks before the new year, a natural disaster struck. My year began with a hiatus in writing.

A super typhoon had caused a humanitarian crisis in our city and for most parts of the island. It took more than a month to restore electricity for most affected towns and barrios, and took the first half of the year to repair most of what the storm had torn down in just 2-3 hours.

As far as having the mental clarity to return to writing, I went two weeks with my laptop shut. The trauma was impossible to shake off. I tried pouring out my thoughts about the experience onto my laptop, but I was unable to finish any article having to do with typhoon Odette. Eventually though, the itch to compose came back naturally. That itch to unearth my thoughts and make them see the light of day brought me back. Like a sidelined pro athlete who can’t return to the arena to play the game, I was desperate for some action. I could have taken a longer break from writing which I used to do in the past, but this time felt different. Because writing also helped me get through the mental and emotional trauma I experienced.

Lesson #2: Having a writing style guide is indispensable.

A little later in the year, I stumbled upon William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well, and it completely changed my perspective on writing. Here was a book that was a cheat sheet on becoming a better writer. As I read through the material, I realized that it was more valuable than any how-to’s on the Internet put together. It was a writing school condensed into 300 pages.

Not only did I learn how to rewrite, add an element of humanity, and apply all other useful tweaks, I appreciated the value of having an all-encompassing guidebook. On Writing Well from then on became my personal writing style guide. Later in the year, I studied the Microsoft Writing Style Guide as I prepared for my new job as a Technical Writer. And this, too, was a writing voice I had to adopt as I wrote for work.

Discovering your own voice is important to get you started writing, especially in writing lengthy compositions. But knowing and adapting to other writing voices is crucial to make your output functional. This realization, I figured, was the start of knowing how to ‘write to be read’.

Lesson #3: Be honest with yourself on what you want to write.

As I absorbed the writing-to-be-read mentality, I encountered a few stumbling blocks. Because I had devoted my professional existence to writing, I had some doubts as to why I wrote in the first place. Was I now writing because my salary depended on it? Had I now lost the pleasure of the act, because I had turned my pastime into my career?

It took a while, as I went through immersion training for my new job, but I managed to rummage from my mental backburner to find my reason for writing. When I started writing for HubPages, one of my first articles was an amateur’s expose on the state of the middle class in the Philippines. I remembered wanting to be one of those voices for those who couldn’t speak out, didn’t know how to, or were afraid to.

There are many social conditions and workplace issues yet to be given their chance of discussion in my country, let alone the whole world. And this was my core purpose—to be a voice for others in despair, in frustration, or for the uninitiated.

You might be someone writing for a brand, a conglomerate, a news agency, or in some other industry. But don’t forget the reason why you write in the first place. Be truthful about what you want to write, and it will continue to light the fire.

Lesson #4: Remember to write for yourself.

Remembering why you write is important and equally valuable is writing for yourself. This is what I missed out on the past year. As I became a writer for a big company, plus focusing on my niche subjects on HubPages, I forgot to write for myself.

When was the last time I wrote a personal journal entry, one whose intended audience was just me? It has been a long while since I wrote something meant to be just thoughts on a page, not meant for mass consumption. And this, I will try to do better at, this year.

Write for yourself, because it is writing for sheer pleasure. And for reflection. Also, for clarity. It is how most consumable writing starts in the first place—a first draft not meant to be seen by a wider audience. Or in Stephen King’s words, “It is completely raw, the sort of thing I feel free to do with the door shut—it’s the story undressed, standing up in nothing but its socks and undershorts.”

In writing for yourself, you don’t have to dress anything up. You are the sole reader, so you can be completely honest with yourself. You can be naked in front of the mirror. You can examine yourself without any judgement.

Lesson #5: Don’t be a snob.

Many of the writing style guides I came across had overlapping rules. It wasn’t just about syntax, or writing in the active voice, or making it feel personal. A common rule in many writing styles is to do whatever you can to de-jargonize your writing. This means you should avoid, stop yourself, from being a snob.

Being snobbish in writing, to use an oversized metaphor, is like drying out a river to use all of that natural resource to sell bottled water to the locals. At first instance, all of that water was accessible, useable, drinkable but you just had to put a price tag on it. Worse, you sell your bottled water at a high price, preventing access to those who can’t afford it.

This is what happens when there’s so much jargon in your writing. You’re making your ideas inaccessible, when you could have easily made them easy to take. By using eloquent terms which most readers have to look up (if they even have the patience to), you’re alienating your audience.

Write in simple terms so your readers, whoever they are, will get your message.

Lesson #6: Write with the goal of helping people.

To be helpful is a purpose in writing I wish I had learned earlier in my journey. For so long, I had focused on writing to express myself, producing articulated rants that turned into articles. My worldview then was because I was sharing my own experiences, I was giving my readers something they could relate to, and thus find comfort.

I don’t think I was totally wrong in writing this way. And I continue to believe that sharing your personal tales can provide helpful insights to other people. However, if left unchecked, these stories can lead to vanity and a disregard for what others might need. They can give off an I only care about me effect. And this, I found this year, was inimical to what writing stood for.

Today, people rely on Search to look for an answer to their question, or a solution to their problem.

It’s true that they might be able to find it on your personal stories, maybe even discover it on some vague poem you wrote. But chances are, they will find their answer, their solution, on an article that spells it out for them. They’re most likely to get what they’re looking for when it’s made more obvious to them.

And this is perhaps the underrated part about SEO or how Search works. Most content writers might view SEO in the light of marketing, or how it leads customers to your site with the end-goal of converting them into buyers. But the power of SEO and Search is more fascinating than a mere sales transaction. Writing for the web means you’re making ideas, answers, and solutions more accessible to people. This means going beyond your vanity and doing the work—researching, consulting people, finding useful answers, asking good questions, and leaving the comfort of just sharing your own story.

Write to help people, and you’ll see how people will ultimately find and read your work.

Writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.

There were so many little lessons from the past year that sharing all of them here would be impractical. But these were six of them that I felt were extremely important in my growth as a writer. If you are just starting out on your own path, know that all writing must start somewhere. However, this doesn’t mean that writing must end. And what I mean by this can be summed up by my favorite quote from William Zinsser in On Writing Well:

“You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time.”

And ever since I absorbed the meaning of this lesson, I realized that what I wrote yesterday could be written better today, even better tomorrow, and so on. And I keep writing on.

© 2023 Greg de la Cruz