The Truth about Writing (even Hemingway found it hard sometimes)

I love this quote by Hemingway. It proves that even the most talented writers don’t effortlessly crank out prose so good it makes you want to cry or, if you’re like me, have an apoplectic fit of jealousy.

Those of us who write for a living can take some small comfort in that.

I’m always baffled that so many of my clients and friends assume writing should be an easy skill to master. After all, anyone with high school English can sit down at the laptop and crank out a few passable lines, right?

I’m not sure where this idea came from. But I think it’s because the best writers make writing look easy.

It’s only when it comes time to write that eBook or blog post that it becomes apparent that writing to engage, influence or inspire a group of people is not always an easy thing to do, no matter how great your ideas are.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing can be fun, satisfying and rewarding. But easy? Not so much.

Maybe these grains of truth will help your writing process (or at least make you feel a little better about it).  

1)  The first draft is never that great

Which is why few people can bang out a blog post in 10 minutes. If you can, you are a really annoying person. Just saying. Some copywriters like to sleep on the first draft and come to it fresh the next day. Others will put that first draft away for a week. Either way about 80 per cent of the writing work is in the editing process.

You could say great writing is editing. Language gets revised, metaphors punched up, clichés nixed and verbs improved. If you want to be a better writer, become a skilled editor. Or work for one. My old newspaper editor was a pro and though I sometimes dreaded his critiques, I learned a lot from his red pen (thanks Ken!).

2)  Good writing has nothing to do with flowery adjectives.

Unless you’re Wordsworth. Last time I looked he was dead so I’m going to assume you’re not. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who’s doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.

The US writer, teacher and editor, William Zinsser said that. And I’m sure as hell not going to argue with him. He’s talking about nonfiction writing but I reckon the same principles apply to creative writing.

3)  Rely on verbs to give your writing impact, not adverbs, and certainly not adjectives.

Use metaphors that are unexpected rather than clichéd. Admittedly, this can be tough because clichéd language comes so naturally to us. Before you know it you’ve peppered your writing with phrases like “a dark and stormy night”, “like clockwork”, or “to add insult to injury”. Watch out for this and read back over your work with a critical eye.

Here’s an excerpt from a book by one of my favourite fiction writers, Junot Diaz. His writing is very clean and the verbs and metaphors he uses give this passage real emotional impact.

“That was the summer when everything we would become was hovering over our heads. Girls were starting to take notice of me; I wasn’t good-looking but I listened and had boxing muscles in my arms. In another universe I probably came out OK, ended up with bad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim, but in this world I had a brother who was dying of cancer and a long dark patch of life like a mile of black ice waiting for me up ahead.”

I love how he used ‘hovering’, ‘sea of love in which to swim’ and ‘like a mile of black ice’ to evoke nostalgia and a sense of impending doom. You can apply the same principles to your blog writing, though hopefully in a less depressing context 8-)

4) A good writer should be a skilled researcher and a relentless snoop.

This is why, if you hire a copywriter, they’ll ask you a lot of questions. I mean a lot. We’re nosy creatures. Hit us with everything you’ve got. Let us interview people or dig around in your archives. It may seem like a lot of effort, but the more information you provide, the better the result. Sadly, we’re unlikely to come up with a marketing gem if you give us perfunctory company data and a 24-hour deadline.

5)  Good copy is not always entertaining copy.

The Old Spice and Carlton ads might be rib-ticklers, but that’s beside the point. As Bob Bly, one of the world’s most successful direct response copywriters says, the goal of advertising is not to be liked, to entertain or to win advertising awards. It’s to sell products. Of course you can be artistic and still sell. But you shouldn’t do the first at the expense of the latter. Spot on, Bob.

Did these tips help? If you have any feedback I’d love to hear it in the comments. Writers please weigh in with your comments. Would you agree with what I’ve said here?


About the author: Denise Mooney


Hi, I’m Denise. I’m a writer, Irish expat and mum to one little boy. I blog at www.denisemooney.com.au about how to write and communicate with more confidence and ease. I love sharing ideas and life lessons. I’m also partial to strong coffee, 90s music and blueberry muffins.

Join me on denisemooney.com.au

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3 replies
  1. Cathy Goodwin
    Cathy Goodwin says:

    Good tips- especially #s 4 and 5! A lot of people think they need to be funny when humor is tricky – it actually backfires sometimes. Mostly in the service businesses where I work, it *does* have to be engaging.

    And most people don’t realize how much research is a part of copy. Most copywriters spend more time researching than writing, unless the client’s done the research already and presented us with a summary.

  2. Xerxes Aga
    Xerxes Aga says:

    A sentence is only as good as the words it contains. I like to think of a sentence as a strip of wood with holes of different shapes punched into it. And then there are words. There are thousands of them. Each is a peg with a unique shape. The trick is to find a peg with the same shape as a hole in the strip of wood and fit it in. Once you have all the holes of the strip filled up, your work is done. You have an elegant, admirable, memorable sentence. Easy. Right?

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