Ten words to tell it: my best confident writing tip

One of the things I enjoy most about blog writing is the comments, connections, conversations and questions that flow from it.  It’s an open rather than a closed form of a writing.  And some of the best comments and questions come back to prompt, challenge, inspire - and sometimes even haunt - you.  I got one of those haunting questions from Dawud Miracle last week.  The comment was on a link to a piece he’d written on his best copywriting tip.  The question was a big one, contained in a small number of words.

“What would be your best copywriting tip?”

There’s no way I could leave that one hanging - and I’ve been turning the answer around in my head all week.  Two caveats.  First, I’m not pretending to be a copywriting expert so I’m defining the question in relation to my overall aim: confident writing. Second, I really can’t decide if this is my best all time confident writing tip - so I’m reserving the right to make it part of a “top five” later if other contenders demand to make themselves heard…

My best confident writing tip

One of the biggest problems that people have with writing is being unclear about what they’re trying to say.  They have too much they want to write down all at once, so the words flood out and overwhelm them (and their readers).  Or they have a whole series of points that they want to put across but the overall meaning gets lost in the noise and chatter of unnecessary words.  Losing sight of your overall point is also bad for your confidence: it makes it more likely that doubts will creep in, telling you not to bother writing at all.  ‘Who cares what you think?’

Well, we do care, but when you write it we’d love to be able to hear the message loud and clear, for you to tell your story with strength, clarity and confidence.

The trick is to be clear what you’re trying to say.

Stand back from your writing and tell it in ten

When people get lost in their own words I encourage them to stand back from their writing and look at it again from a distance.  It’s almost like ‘hovering over’ the text - or your notes, scribbles, ideas - until your perspective shifts and you can see a different pattern emerge.  What you are looking for is the essence of the story you’re trying to tell.

Ask yourself “what is it that I want to say here?” and answer the question in no more than 10 words.  Closer to 5 words if you can, but make 10 the limit - the size limit forces you to keep boiling it down until you get to the essence of what you want to say.

You might be wondering how to discover the overall point.  Well it will depend on the context of course - business writing, a student essay, a chapter of a novel, a blog post, your personal journal - but the questions work the same way.  “What is the main point that I want to make here?” or “What message do I want my reader to take away?”

If you can’t answer those questions in 10 words - step back again.  How does it look when you get more distance and your perspective changes?

Let the message tell the story

Once  you have your ten-word message everything else will follow: the words, the tone, the structure… it will all start to fall into place (honest!).  Hold on to this message - the essence of your story - as you start to write, and allow the words to write themselves.  This is similar to the tip from Dawud and Andrea - that is, to trust the power of your unconscious mind. The ten-word challenge is you setting the overall direction.  Once you have that, step back, get out of your own way, and allow the words to flow.

If you get stuck again repeat the technique: step back and ask yourself what you’re trying to say… in no more than ten words.  Keep practicing this and you’ll soon be writing with clarity and confidence.

Do you have a version of the “ten words to tell it” tip?  Or your own “best ever” writing tip that you’d like to share?

Joanna Paterson

Journal and writing coach, teaching ways to notice and capture the wonder of the everyday, through writing, poetry, and photography.

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11 Responses to “Ten words to tell it: my best confident writing tip”

  1. On August 8, 2007 at 1:08 am EM responded with... #

    This is so true. I’ve been learning the very same thing in my fiction writing. No matter how many words there are to play with, everything needs to connect back to the underlying story, and that primary story arc always has to come first. If you leave the primary “quest” for too long, no matter what that quest is, you’ll lose your readers!

    I have often seen this problem in fantasy writing workshops. The writer may say, “Well, it’s about this character who has to save the world. And this barrier has come down that used to protect the land from this evil realm. And these goblins are also acting up because of it. And the character is struggling a lot because he doesn’t know who his clan is…”

    But that last bit is really the story. The character not knowing who his clan is. That’s the personal story, so that’s what the reader will care about. Everything else may be fun and interesting, but in the end it’s just icing on the cake. And that’s how the writer needs to approach the story-that’s the focus the writer needs to hang on to.

    So thanks. This post helped me put these ideas into a single framework-something to hang on to while I write my own stories, and a good way to share the idea with other writers during workshops. :)

  2. On August 9, 2007 at 10:30 am Andrea responded with... #


    Hi! Thanks for the link love… going to try to give it back today.

    I really like your idea about telling it in 10. I used to require about 3 pages to get across something that could be said in 1 paragraph. I have really worked on trying to find the message, and cutting out all the excess. It’s a work in progress!!

    Great Blog! Best of luck

  3. On August 10, 2007 at 10:16 am Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi Andrea

    It’s good to hear from you. It sounds like you’ve made lots of progress in cutting out the excess - it really is the secret to more powerful, confident writing.

    Good luck with the work in progress!


  4. On August 10, 2007 at 10:19 am Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi EM

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on how this could apply within the contexts of fiction writing and fantasy fiction. I’m looking forward to hearing more!

    Your comments remind me of another important tip on how to spot the key message - will blog about that soon.

    I love how we can learn and share from each other like this :-)


  5. On August 10, 2007 at 11:33 am Andrea responded with... #


    As a child I was frightened of writing.. always loved reading and especially if it was very well written. (you know those authors who take the mundane and turn it into something extraordinary) .. and wanted to take the English Lit classes, but couldnt face the challenge of Essay after Essay..

    The irony is that I now love to write. I can not dream of competing with those whom I admire, but I at least try to convey my own ‘voice’..

    Please come comment on my blog where I linked to you!


  6. On August 10, 2007 at 12:11 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi Andrea

    It took me some close reading… but I found the link (many thanks)

    Your comments about the fear of writing are really interesting. I’m sure many people share those feelings. It’s a sad reflection on our education systems that people who love words and reading can be made to feel so fearful about expressing themselves.

    I’m delighted that you’ve found your own ways of overcoming those fears (want to share what ways they were…?) and are now writing with confidence. Now you’ve found your own voice there’ll be no stopping you :-)


  7. On August 10, 2007 at 5:01 pm Confident Writing responded with... #

    How do you know when you’ve got to the point

    I was writing the other day about ‘telling it in ten’, my (current) top tip for confident writing. The gist of it was learning to stand back from your writing and identify the key message - which should be tellable

  8. On August 13, 2007 at 5:21 am Dawud Miracle responded with... #

    Though I wrote about it, I have to defer to Andrea. She’s the one who inspired me to write about what may be the best copywriting tip ever

  9. On August 14, 2007 at 12:48 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Dawud, your honesty is appreciated - though it’s often only through the links that we find each other’s ideas and words…

    I’ve tried to highlight Andrea’s inspiring role in coming up with this best ever tip - and am glad she’s now joined the conversation here :-)


  10. On August 22, 2007 at 3:21 pm Manage Your Writing responded with... #

    Ten words

    Joanna Young, at Confident Writing, has posted what she calls her best confident writing tip: when you’re struggling to put an idea into writing, reduce it to no more than ten words. Here’s part of what she says:Ask yourself what


  1. Ten words to tell it: my best confident writing tip » The Write Network - June 22, 2009

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