Have you ever sat down to writing something, only to be struck by the fear of not knowing what to write?
It happens to all of us (myself included).
Last year I went through what felt like a month long period of writers block. Nothing sounded good to me and I started to wonder if I was losing my mind. Luckily that was not the case!
Lately I’ve talked to and emailed with a number of blog readers who had similar questions about writing. They wanted to know how to improve their writing skills. How can they write a better story?
Be Patient (and compassionate) With Yourself
What I’m going to say first might seem like a cop out, but I’m going to say it anyway. You must be patient and compassionate with yourself. Anytime you’re trying to improve something, it is really counter-productive to be hard on yourself. In many cases we are our own worst critics, but how often has that criticism positively helped you?
So – Step 1 to improving your writing is to let go of your inner critic.
Hook Them From the Start
The best writing – fiction or nonfiction – hooks us from the start and makes us want to keep reading. You can accomplish this with your stories, too!
One of my favorite copywriting techniques is to lead with a question. The trick is it can’t be just any old question. It has to be the right question for your target audience. The question you choose should meet your audience where they are at. It should be just jarring enough to catch their attention. You can accomplish this by tapping into your audiences’ hopes and fears.
Here’s an example:
It’s Christmas Eve and after a long day in the emergency room, you’ve just been told that you have lung cancer. What do you do now?
The first sentence may not be a question in this case, but after setting up the scene, the readers are asked to put themselves in this situation. That gets them emotionally invested in what’s happening.
Here’s another example:
What if there were no more local parks for children to play in?
Last week when our city announced budget cuts for city parks, it meant 10 parks must close. For the Smith family, that means no more parks nearby for their family to spend time together.
Again in this example the reader is asked to imagine something, and then they are told about someone in this same situation.
Picking the Right Question
As I mentioned above, knowing your audience is certainly important to asking the right question. You can also brainstorm situations clients have been in, or the impact of your organization’s mission to find the right, emotionally charged question.
What’s one question you can lead for your next story? Leave a comment below to share your question.
Neil Zarchin says
This is great advice, and I can see using it for blogs and even direct mail appeals. However, a lot of my writing is grant proposals which tend to be targetted at busy program officers. Character or word limits are constant constraints. Does anyone have any success using this technique in this arena.
Elizabeth Barick says
Thank you Neil, my question exactly. More and more grant applications are online and word/character limits make including even the most basic, necessary facts a challenge. It’s difficult to “tell a story” in that writing environment. I’d love some advice as well.
Vanessa Chase says
Hi Neil and Elizabeth – I can definitely commiserate with you on this. Grants are a different beast entirely. What I suggested in this blog post would work best for emails, letters, social media, and so on.
What I’ve done in the past is if there’s an opportunity to include a URL to supplementary information, I will make sure it goes to a webpage with great copy. If I have the opportunity to send in an email or cover letter with the application, that’s also a good opportunity.
You could also think about using the technique in conversations with program officers. If you have preliminary conversations with them ahead of submitting the LOI or application, that’s a great opportunity to make great impression and tell them a story.
Awesome information, question: I understand that a question will be great to increase the interest of the writer, but how about if the population one is trying to reach is a mixture of Low, Middle and High income? How would one approach it?
I meant reader, not writer**
Hi Michael – The same technique could be used no matter what demographic you are targeting. What you would want to change is the question you ask. This would require you to segment your appeal to ask the right question to the right audience.