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Why “must try harder” never works for writing

When I began my journalistic career as a freelance, at 23, it took me several years to learn the one important secret which was to transform my writing.

I’d previously worked as a copywriter in advertising and found writing for newspapers and magazines very different -and difficult. But one thing gave me hope.  Whenever I wrote for the local paper, I really enjoyed the process.  I liked the staff, I felt I knew the readers, I could write about what interested me. And when the words tumbled easily onto the page, I felt I’d done a reasonably good job.

But when I started writing features for the nationals, it was a different story. My first thousand-word feature for the Daily Telegraph took me three days at the keyboard to get right.  Too long by far if I was to make a living at freelancing.

Then a new magazine commissioned me to write a celebrity interview feature for the cover of their launch issue.  The editor confided, “This is a really important piece for us. Don’t let us down.” Which were the worst words he could have spoken.  I was terrified. 

The pressure was on. I tried very hard, labouring over every line. I polished every paragraph - and produced absolute rubbish. The feature never made the front cover story. Instead, they tucked away my pathetic piece towards the back of the magazine.  And the best place for it too!

Then I did some research on writers’ block and discovered my problem wasn’t lack of talent.  I just lacked confidence.  I knew this was true as I’d written so confidently for the local paper.  But the problems arose with prestige publications whose titles would look good on my CV.  But the higher I set my expectations for myself, the worse the results.

So I started to prepare more carefully before my fingers touched the keys. I replaced my previous negative self-talk with five minutes of more considered messages. I’d close my eyes at my desk and focus on past writing successes.  I’d programme my brain by telling myself, “I’m a very good writer. This is going to be easy and you’re going to really enjoy writing this.” And I did!

So now with my coaching clients, no matter what their writing challenges, I pass a favourite newspaper saying that senior reporters have passed on to young recruits ever since newspapers began.  “Don’t get it right, get it written” they say. After all, whatever we write, it’s only the first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect.  Whatever you’re writing, don’t try harder. It doesn’t work. Those teachers in school weren’t always right after all.

Tips for Writing with Confidence

·      Complete all your research before you start writing. Confident writing comes from the knowledge that you have all the facts at your fingertips. Though if something vital is missing, it’s never too late to fill the gaps.

·      Get your information from people who are passionate about what they do.  Their enthusiasm will rub off on you.

·      Resist the temptation to continually keep checking as you write. Unless you suspect you are seriously off track, leave the revisions until the piece is complete.

·      A couple of hours delay before editing will help you be more objective about your own work. If possible, edit next day – you will instantly see what changes are needed. Then, with a little polishing, you should have lively, engaging, energetic copy.

Good luck!