How to be a more confident writer (and no, it has nothing to do with writing every day)

Forget the bells and whistles. When it comes to writing confidence, nothing is more important than the substance of what you’re trying to say.

 Photo by  Brooke Lark  on  Unsplash

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

I often have conversations with folks who ask for tips on how to become more confident about their writing.

Here’s the tl;dr version of my advice: There is nothing that will increase your writing confidence as being sure about what you want to say.

Many people think that writing is hard work because it requires a facility with language.

But that’s not actually it.

Writing is hard work because it requires getting your ideas in order and your supporting arguments to make sense.

This holds true no matter what kind of writing you’re doing — from scientific papers to novels to sales pages to legal briefs.

And I speak from experience.

In my first career, I was a scientist, and my writing looked like this: “LacZ expression was increased in the fast-growing Mgat5-/- tumors that overcame growth suppression” (that’s a real sentence from one of my papers).

Then a legal career happened, and I had to write a lot, to deadline, and often in legalese.

But in both science and law, I noticed a pattern.

I wrote better when I felt that I had something to say and was confident in my arguments. On the other hand, writing when I knew that my position was weak and not well-supported was an exercise in insecurity and felt like pushing a boulder uphill.

The same pattern emerged in my extracurricular writing, too, including fiction. If the substance is there, I’m not so worried about the words coming out right, because that’s just mechanics. If my ideas, arguments, and logic are in order, the rest is just lots of hard but doable work.

Practically speaking, here are the questions I ask myself as I write and edit:

  1. What am I trying to say? What’s my idea?

  2. Can I poke holes in my idea? Are there aspects that don’t work (in fiction, the question can be whether I’m using a far-fetched plot device or a hard-to-believe coincidence; in nonfiction, the question can be whether I’m extrapolating too much)?

  3. Why do I think my idea is correct? What arguments do I have to support it? Are my arguments internally consistent?

  4. What questions is my reader likely to have? How do I answer them?

  5. Which of my points is the strongest? Do I want to lead with it for a strong start, or keep it till the end for a strong finish?

  6. How do I lead the reader through my reasoning in the most persuasive manner? Which arguments build on each other, and therefore need to follow one another? Does it make sense to keep my story in a chronological order, reverse chronological order, or is there a totally different organizing principle?

Note that none of these questions relate to grammar or word choice — they are all squarely focused on the substance.

If you work through these questions, the language in which you write your content can always be massaged, stretched, chopped, and otherwise edited to flow better and to read clearer.

But if you don’t work through these questions, you’ll end up with a mess — no matter how many pretty sentences you string together.

So the one tip for writing confidence I swear by is this: spend more time on the substance of your written work. Because the substance is the foundation, and it will help guide the final form, the polish, and the bells and whistles.

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Easy peasy.

Maria Granovsky