Why Most Writing Tips Are Useless (and How to Really Up Your Game)

Why Most Writing Tips Are Useless (and How to Really Up Your Game)

You’re impatient to become a better writer.

So naturally you love writing tips.

You eagerly devour each new one, hoping to give your writing brain a small but valuable upgrade.

But in practice, new tips appear so regularly that you struggle to keep up.

You don’t know which tips to try and which to ignore, and each new practice is quickly replaced by the next.

One week you’re trying to use more emotion in your writing. The next, fewer adjectives. After that, it’s all about empathy.

You end up switching tactics so often that you can’t tell which tips are working and which are simply wasting your time.

Surely there’s an answer? A solution must exist that lies somewhere between trying everything and ignoring everything.

The Unexpected Problem with Popular Writing Tips

The problem with popular writing tips is not that they don’t work – many of them do. The problem is that they can be overwhelming.

This is what typically happens…

You come across a promising new tip online – maybe even on this blog – and so you add it to your mental stockpile of writing tools and techniques.

But when it’s time to actually write, you have so many different approaches floating around in your head that you wrestle to combine them into a coherent strategy.

Some tips are complementary, but others seem contradictory. And weighing all the options can lead to paralysis – the tyranny of choice.

In fact, it’s a recipe for writer’s block if there ever was one.

So you don’t need more tips, but a smaller number of mutually-compatible techniques.

The “Many Hats” Model of Problem Solving

Walt Disney was said to wear several different “hats” in creative meetings – the dreamer, the critic and the realist. They helped him to create new ideas, refine them and then bring them to life.

Edward de Bono formalized the brainstorming process with his Six Thinking Hats, attributing different types of thinking (emotional, factual, creative, etc.) to each of six different-colored hats.

And this idea of “wearing” a series of different hats when approaching a task is a powerful one because it gives you permission to think about the task from a single point of view, without becoming distracted by other angles.

It also provides a finite set of perspectives, which helps you avoid feelings of overwhelm or of neglecting some important aspect.

The following hats will help you see the writing process from six different – but compatible – perspectives, so you can create powerful, well-rounded posts without drowning in a sea of tips.

#1 The Architect

The Architect is primarily interested in structure and form. They are concerned with how the component pieces are assembled to create a coherent whole.

With an Architect’s hat, you look at your writing from this structural point of view. Using this perspective, the various sections, paragraphs and sentences are simply the framework used to support the ideas contained within. But how successfully does it do this?

Is the structure elegant and balanced? Does each part play an important role in the structure as a whole? Are the main ideas presented in the most logical order?

In the real world an architect knows the function of the structure they are designing – they cannot create a successful design without first understanding its purpose. After all, what makes a great space for working might not make a great space for living.

So do you have a clear purpose for your writing? What are you aiming to achieve? What effect should your words have on the reader?

How to wear the Architect hat

To wear the hat ask: “What’s my purpose here? What are the principal elements and how should they be combined?”

With your Architect hat on, do the following:

  • Design the basic structure of your post before worrying about the details.
  • Reorder sections to improve the flow from idea to idea.
  • Remove elements that do not support the overall purpose.

#2 The Cheerleader

What state do you think the average blog reader is in when they click on a post?

Energetic, engaged and optimistic? Or exhausted, doubtful and on the verge of giving up?

Too often it’s the latter.

Most blog readers are trying to solve a persistent problem or pursue a big dream. They’ve worked hard, but success still seems distant, and frankly, it’s getting them down.

Worse still, their journey has been peppered with numerous broken promises of quick fixes and game-changing secrets.

Every time they give their attention to a new piece of content, it’s really another small cry for help. Deep down they know most shortcuts don’t work, and what they really need is to know that someone is rooting for them. Someone who can drown out the negative voices (imagined and real) by saying, “You can do this!”

So the Cheerleader is a source of pure positive energy. They don’t care where the reader has come from, only that they reach where they’re heading.

And they will not let the reader give up, no matter how tough the going gets.

How to wear the Cheerleader hat

To wear the hat ask: “How can I get my reader in the right state to take action?”

With your Cheerleader hat on, do the following:

  • Use emotion-laden power words to create a highly-motivated state.
  • Harness the power of repetition to reinforce positive suggestions (much like a cheerleading chant).
  • Keep reminding the reader of the prize at the end of the struggle.

#3 The Teacher

While it’s true not every blog reader goes online to solve a problem or research a topic, you can’t escape the fact that practical, informational content is hugely popular.

And so for most bloggers, reader education is an important part of the content mix.

But being an effective teacher is more than simply communicating useful information. Having valuable knowledge, and being able to transfer that knowledge to others, are two quite different things.

A good teacher knows how to control the flow of information so their students are neither bored nor overwhelmed. They understand the current level of their audience, and pitch their content accordingly. They use striking metaphors and clear examples to explain complex and subtle ideas.

As a writer, you wear the Teacher hat to ensure you don’t lose sight of the need to leave the reader more informed or more skilled. You wear it to protect you from creating “fluff” content that diverts the reader’s attention for a while, but has little lasting impact.

How to wear the Teacher hat

To wear the hat ask: “What does the reader need to understand to be successful? And what do they need to be able to do?”

With your Teacher hat on, do the following:

  • Recognize your assumptions about what the reader already knows and be sure to create a safety net for those who know less (e.g., with links to external resources).
  • Check the consistency of your approach. Are you creating a tutorial to be followed step-by-step or a reference resource to be visited as required?
  • Identify the building blocks of understanding and ensure important concepts are clearly and carefully explained. Be ruthless in your search for better metaphors and more relevant examples.

#4 The Troublemaker

Many readers arrive at a blog feeling stuck. They might be trapped by circumstance or stuck in a certain way of thinking. But whatever the cause, sometimes no amount of encouragement or helpful advice can unstick them.

That’s why the Troublemaker exists – to shake things up. Troublemakers challenge the status quo and tear down old ideas so the pieces can be put back together in new, more powerful ways.

George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man” and the writer in a Troublemaker hat should certainly be unreasonable.

So you should have unreasonable ambitions for your reader. Make unreasonable demands on their time and commitment. Program them to expect unreasonable levels of success.

And use every method at your disposal to provoke unrest.

Stir up the reader by amplifying their frustrations. Show them the unfairness of failing where less talented peers are succeeding.

How to wear the Troublemaker hat

To wear the hat ask: “Which part of the reader’s world needs shaking up?”

With your Troublemaker hat on:

  • Target beliefs that are holding the reader back. Question their assumptions. Debunk popular myths. Try to make the reader unsettled, restless, and ready for change.
  • Explore new ways to solve familiar challenges. Try to view old problems through the eyes of an outsider unburdened by preconceptions about how things are done.
  • Indulge your mischievous side.  Play devil’s advocate. Challenge the status quo just to see what happens when you don’t play by the rules.

#5 The Friend

People don’t just want information and motivation, they want understanding.

Readers head to their favorite blogs not only to solve problems, but to find people with the same passions; people who use the same language and who understand what it’s like to be them.

So the Friend bonds with the reader over shared struggles and experiences. They understand the reader’s goals – and likely share them.

But while it’s one thing to understand someone’s goals and desires, it’s another altogether to fight for them as passionately you would your own. When you have a true friend, their triumphs are your triumphs, their failures your failures.

Wearing the Friend hat, a skilled writer can create that feeling of camaraderie – that sense that we’re all in it together – even with strangers they may never interact with directly.

How to wear the Friend hat

To wear the hat ask: “How can I show the reader I understand them and I’ve got their back?”

With your Friend hat on, do the following:

  • Seek ways to show you understand your reader’s fears and frustrations. Validate their goals and desires.
  • Be unafraid to tell it like it is. Friends don’t BS each other or sugarcoat hard truths.
  • Show them your support is not contingent on the speed or scale of their success. The only thing you will not support is giving up.

#6 The Artisan

In contrast with the Architect, the Artisan is interested in the fine detail rather than the bigger picture.

In the physical world the artisan is the furniture maker, the jeweler, the pastry chef. They may produce many examples of their work in a lifetime, but each is lovingly and skillfully crafted to the same high standard. Every piece of work is a calling card, a demonstration of the artisan’s skill and commitment.

As a writer, you wear the Artisan hat to finesse your work, making the small changes and adjustments required to transform it from functional to phenomenal.

So focus less on what your writing says, and more on how it says it. Take joy in the execution and look for opportunities to entertain (e.g., by using humor) as well as inform.

How to wear the Artisan hat

To wear the hat ask: “What incremental changes can I make to improve this content?”

With your Artisan hat on, do the following:

How to Start Using the 6 Hats in Your Writing Today

The six writing hats can be used at any stage in the creative process.

Try reviewing a first draft wearing each of the hats in turn and notice how quickly you spot ways to improve it.

But if all you have is a headline idea and a blank page, here’s how to proceed:

Start as an Architect. Get clear on your purpose and create a rough outline for your post. Paint in broad strokes – steer clear of the detail. Be unafraid to discard whole sections. Move things around.

Write the opening as the Friend. Show your reader you understand their fears and desires. Show them you’ve walked in their shoes, and let them know that whatever happens you’re on their side.

To tackle the body of the post, be part-Troublemaker, part-Teacher. Show the reader what’s wrong with the status quo, and teach them what they must do to make a change.

In the closing, become the Cheerleader. A real-life cheerleader chants loudest in the dying minutes of the game, and in the final paragraphs, you need to push the reader hard to victory.

Once you have your first draft, become the Artisan and finesse your post until it’s as good as your current skills allow.

Get Off the Writing Tips Treadmill and Try This Instead

Becoming a better writer is not an arms race.

You can’t win the battle for your readers’ attention simply by having more weapons in your writing arsenal than everyone else.

The question isn’t how many techniques you adopt – it’s what combination.

After all, who do you think would win a fight between a karate student who’s perfected a few carefully-chosen techniques and one who’s tried to learn every move in the book?

Likewise, becoming a better writer is about choosing a few techniques and applying them consistently.

So stop chasing every new writing tip and try these six hats on for size.

You might find they’re the only writing tips you ever need.

About the Author: Glen Long is the managing editor of Boost Blog Traffic. He’s also the co-creator of Jon Morrow’s completely revised and totally amazing GuestBlogging Certification Program. Come and say hi on Google+ or Twitter.