typingMaking a great living from your writing requires getting pretty darn effective at how you spend your time, and how quickly you can craft high-quality content.

We’re talking top-notch content without agony, writer’s block, useless first drafts, or excessive rewrites. (Yes, it’s possible. For reals.)

Contrary to popular belief, great writing happens not through some dark art, but when method meets craft, says Jack Hart, writing coach and former managing editor at The Oregonian.

I first read Hart’s A Writer’s Coach years ago, and it remains one of the books — perhaps the book — that’s made the most impact on my writing.

I dare say the day I began applying Hart’s methods was the day I saw writer’s block vanish — and it hasn’t returned since.

Good writing, Hart explains:

  • radiates energy, cracking with a vigor that pulls readers along.
  • gets to the point and doesn’t waste the reader’s time.
  • transports readers into a scene where they can see the autumn light and smell the fallen leaves crunching underfoot.
  • has personality, a tone both appropriate to the subject and inviting for the reader.
  • has a rhythm that creates cadences and makes reading enjoyable, regardless of the content.
  • is clear. You never have to read a well-written sentence twice — unless it’s for the sheer pleasure of the experience.
  • is mechanically correct. Good writers know their tools, and they never trip up readers with lapses of grammar, usage, or style.

Just look at that list. No wonder so many writers view the craft as mystical, whispered into the writer’s ear by a muse who comes and goes as she pleases.

Fortunately, that’s not true.

In fact, Hart writes:

“The most successful writers I know have mastered a productive, efficient process that consistently turns out great work. They write without psychological meltdown, and they make deadline.”

But how? Hart argues beautiful writing is built one step at a time, like a house.

“Take the steps slowly,” he writes, “break them into pieces small enough to handle easily, and the agony will disappear.”

To that end, he proposes the following process:

Idea → Information Gathering → Focus → Organizing → Drafting → Polishing

While this process seems like common sense, it’s far from common practice.

Many writers are “plungers,” as fellow writer Don Fry puts it, diving into their writing without much (or any) planning. And while plunging does work for some, Hart argues the method outlined above makes writing not only more manageable, but also clearer, more forceful and effective.

It’s a method that’s served me well. By the time I write the first sentence on any assignment, I’ve already massaged, molded and munched on the idea so much, a half-baked first draft practically tumbles out of my fingertips onto the keyboard and screen before me.

After all, Hart says, content problems are nearly always process problems.

“A problem visible at any one stage of the writing process usually results from something that happened at the immediate preceding stage,” he explains.

Maybe you didn’t do enough research. Maybe you didn’t ask enough questions, or the right questions. Maybe you didn’t clarify your focus or speak to the right source. According to Hart, these are all problems that must be resolved in the stages that precede writing.

He does grant, however, that for most of us who write for a living, the magic doesn’t happen until we force our fingers onto keys and make words appear on screen. That’s because the exercise of writing triggers the kind of sequential, cause-and-effect thinking that leads our minds into new territory, where points we never considered suddenly appear to us.

“Writing, ultimately, is the highest form of thinking,” Hart concludes. “And that’s what organization is all about.”

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