How Bad Writers Can Sound Like Great Writers: 10 Easy Tricks (Top-Performing Wordsmithing Strategies)

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D.

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., writes about theology, mental health, marketing, and fitness. Paul has been writing on PaulMaxwell.co for over a decade.

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There’s no such thing as a bad writer. There’s no such thing as a person who cannot add value to another human being. And, that’s all good writing is—adding value.

If you consider yourself a bad writer—or if you’re a growing writer looking to improve—we’re going to dive into 10 simple strategies to take you from Forrest Gump asking Jenny on a date to Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans.

Here’s what you need to realize first:

Useful writing outplays pretty writing almost every single time.

Utility beats eloquence like rock beats scissors. People want solutions, because they have problems. And solutions most often come in the form of tools. If you know how to give people tools in your writing, then you know how to be a good writer. I’m going to give you 10 strategies to make giving people tools in your writing straightforward and easy.

By making use of these 10 strategies, you will outpace, outperform, and out-write all of those MFA-trained, Ivy League windbags who pimp out their utterly useless writing with high-brow words that leave people scratching their heads, with no better idea of how to solve their problems.

If you don’t understand this, people will always hate your writing:

People don’t read things because they like to read. People read things because their lives are steeped in chaos. They don’t actually care about the writer. There’s a saying in acting: “If an audience member walks away from a movie thinking, ‘Wow, that character was a great actor,’ he wasn’t a great actor. If he walks away thinking, ‘Wow, that character was so evil—I hated him!’ then he was a good actor.”

Like acting, the job of the writer is to get out of the way—to broker the connection between the reader and the solution to their problem (and maybe to agitate that problem a bit). This is why good self-help books are the best selling non-fiction genre in the bookselling marketplace. People look at themselves in the mirror and think: “Help!”

Writing orders that chaos. Each word you write either fixes a problem or it doesn’t. This gives bad writers a fantastic advantage, because they remain undistracted by “the craft” of writing, and are unembarrassed about rolling up their sleeves and helping their readers solve a real problem in simple language.

Here are 10 ways to leave your readers walking away thinking, “Wow, that was super helpful.”

1. Write a claim, don’t write “on” a topic

I can tell when writers have rushed to the body text too quickly when it feels rambling. Rambling is the fastest way to make your content uninformative, and therefore less than valuable for your customers.

There is an easy remedy for this: Instead of writing “on” a topic, argue a claim.

Reading a piece of content “on” a topic is like jumping into a ball pit in a McDonald’s play room—there’s no real point, and it feels weird if you’re an adult.

The adult brain hooks onto claims, because claims always speak to human purpose at some level. Human psychology is driven to agree or disagree. A claim is the literary manifestation of human purpose. When you write, take off your “writing about” hat, and put on your “making a claim” hard hat.

Readers want to be in the know. They want to have something to say. They want to know more than their friends, and they certainly want to know more than their frenemies. If you offer that edge, your readers will feel that you have given them a social gift.

Constraining your content to be claim-based, rather than topical, is one way of making your readers feel like you’ve not wasted their time—in fact, they’ll likely come back if you give them the opportunity.

2. Don’t use tortured metaphors (get it? Eh? Ah?)

A metaphor is a way of expressing an idea that can’t be reduced to pure literarity. Metaphors give us three dimensional access to ideas by allowing us to mediate our understanding of the ideas through alternate lenses. These two claims illustrate this three-dimensionality:

  • “Prolonged loneliness is very unpleasant.”

  • “The grief of isolation is spiritual starvation—your bones begin to feel weak; your swelling pangs for closeness cast a harrowing shadow over your capacity for joy; your unfulfilled desire for connection, like an undetected parasite, slowly makes you feel thin, frail, unstable.”

That was a little self-indulgent. But I wanted to tease out the metaphor to show its power and value.  But it’s an important object lesson. What’s the metaphor there? “Unpleasant” is itself a ridiculous word. The very idea of the word “Unpleasant” assumes you can point to the feeling of loneliness by pointing at the experience a positive emotion and say, “Not that.” So, what is it?

“If you don’t draw your metaphors from within, your writing will read like the literary equivalent of a pixelated, Getty-Photo-watermarked stock photo.”

Sometimes, literality can obscure truth. What exactly is the feeling of loneliness besides “not pleasant”? One way to explain it is that it’s like starvation—and then, what are the effects of starvation and their analogues to loneliness? It provides a category that can accomodate the common middle terms between the concepts—the physical sensations of loneliness and starvation.

Now, what is a tortured metaphor? It’s a metaphor that’s overused. For example, one could say, “Listening to that man is like listening to nails on a chalkboard.” Mildly funny. But forgettable. It’s not a value-add, because the metaphor is so heavily relied upon to express so many different ideas.

Find a new metaphor. Find your own metaphor. Find something characteristic about the situation that highlights peculiar oddities of the idea so that the person who reads you perks up and says: “Wow. I like that. Did you come up with that?” Instead, you could say: “After 15 minutes of that dude’s chicken squawking, I need a nap.”

Paint a picture with your words. And make sure it’s your picture. It’s harder to draw metaphors from within. But if you don’t draw your metaphors from within, your writing will read like the literary equivalent of a pixelated, Getty-Photo-watermarked stock photo.

3. Use bucket brigades

Bucket brigades are a marketing tactic that keeps people on your page longer. The introduction to your content is like a wrestling match to get your reader to stay on the page. A bucket brigade is your chokehold—most readers are caught by this particular marketing tactic in a way that makes them want to stay on the page.

Here’s the life changing tactic:

A short, infinitely intriguing zinger that makes people salivate to read the next sentence.

What are some examples? Here they are:

  • Look:

  • You’re probably wondering:

  • Here’s the deal:

  • There’s good news:

  • Picture This:

  • Let me guess:

  • You’ve heard this advice a million times:

  • We all do it:

  • Be honest:

  • I’ve been there:

  • News flash:

  • Question:

  • You’d be right, but

  • For the first time, it should dawn on you:

  • This single realization changed my entire perspective:

Insert these throughout your writing as a way to transition from agitation to problem, or from problem to solution (below). Bucket brigades are like little, super-charged magnets that drag even the most resistant readers into the logic of your writing. Use them sparsely, but try to use them in every piece of content you write.

Obviously, there are an infinite number of bucket brigade formulas. So, how do you pick one?

Here’s the deal:

It’s a skill. The more you use these stock bucket brigades (here’s a great list, categorized by kind of appeal), the better you will get at generating your own. Practice using them as often as possible in your writing so that they are invisible centers of gravity that pull in your readers.

4. Problem-Agitate-Solution

Your opening sentence is the most important sentence of a piece. If the reader is offended, bored, or put off by your opening sentence, they won’t read another word. They’ll press “Back,” close your book, or insist: “Unsubscribe.” The first sentence is a way to suck them into the second sentence, and ultimately the rest of the piece.

The Problem-Agitate-Solution formula is a way to give your reader the exact kind of logical roller coaster experience they’re looking for. Here’s how it works:

Problem.

Nobody reads things because they have a sense of security. They read because they’re trying to learn, improve, change, build, fix, and solve. There are two reasons for beginning your blog with the problem.

First, it taps into the reader’s sense of insecurity about their own knowledge. It legitimizes their sense that they should be reading you. The problem is real. Therefore, the search for the solution is important .

Second, by articulating the problem well, you win the reader’s trust. You recognize that their suffering, pain, frustration, and obstacles are real, which can help the reader to trust you—if you understand that there is a problem, and exactly what it is, you may just be the person with the solution.

Agitate.

Agitation is the phase of your writing where you stress the dire consequences of failing to solve the problem in order to create a sense of urgency. “If you don’t solve this problem, you might…” This will pull your reader further into your writing in search of an answer. It exacerbates their need to depend on you for the solution.

Solution.

The solution is the most important part of the piece. If you don’t express the problem well, or agitate it sufficiently, the readers will never get to this part. But your solution is where you will convert skeptical first-time readers into long-time loyal readers.

Your solution should point readers to helpful resources and provide original ideas that no one has proposed. Then, in your conclusion, you briefly re-articulate the problem, agitation, and solution for the reader to consolidate what they’ve read into pithy wisdom.

By following this Problem-Agitate-Solution model, you provide a flow of content for the reader that drags them into your entire piece of content like a rip tide.

5. Flip conventional wisdom on its head

It’s commonly said that the goal of writing is clarity. But the truth is exactly the opposite: The goal of writing isn’t clarity—it’s novelty. The goal of writing is to make your reader think: “Woah … I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

I’m going to tell you how to accomplish that in every single piece of content you write.

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“Instead of saying “X is true!” frame your content in a way that compels your reader through intrigue to read the entire article. ”

When writing claim-based content, it’s tempting to say: “This is my claim! Now, let me tell you why that’s true!” But this way of making claims isn’t sticky enough. If you make your reader feel like they could have come up with your content, they will feel that you are useless to them, because you are just regurgitating conventional wisdom.

Instead of saying “X is true!” frame your content in a way that compels your reader through intrigue to read the entire article.

Here’s how you formulate your claim to create spicy intrigue every time:

“It’s commonly said that X, but the truth is actually Y.”

Boom.

Do that. Find a way to make your claim something other than conventional wisdom. This method makes it seem to the reader like what you’re saying isn’t conventional wisdom, and therefore that, if they want to be “in the know” about the dilemma that brought them to your content, they must read your blog.

5. Use clickable headlines

I’m going to give you 16 headline templates that you can use to increase your readership a lot. Many writers are resistant to this marketing strategy, because it feels like “clickbait.”

Here’s the thing:

The only thing that makes something “bait” is if there’s a hook on the other end intended to harm the user. But if your intention is to add value to your reader, then it’s not bait at all—it’s just a strategy that is based on human psychology that generates far more clicks than your run-of-the-mill “Here’s an Idea!” headline.

Here’s the secret sauce:

  1. Who Else Wants [benefit]?

  2. The Secret of [target-skill]-ing [obstacle] like [celebrity]

  3. Here is a Method That is Helping [successful people] to [overcome problem]

  4. Little Known Ways to [blank]

  5. Get Rid of [problem] Once and For All

  6. Here’s a Quick Way to [solve a problem]

  7. Now You Can Have [something desirable] [great circumstance]

  8. [Do something] like [world-class example]

  9. Have a [or] Build a [blank] You Can Be Proud Of

  10. What Everybody Ought to Know About [blank]

  11. A [blank] That Actually Works (mine)

  12. ______ for Beginners

  13. Everything I Wish I Knew About ____ When I Started

  14. A Checklist for _______ (Do These Things Before You Even Think About ________)

  15. The Book ______ Doesn’t Want You to Read (Product Review)

  16. Seven Ways to Format a Listicle:

    1. X Signs That [blank] (highest shares)

    2. You Should Never Do These X Things

    3. Free eBook Tells You [number] [idea] in [time]

    4. Ten [blank]  — Which One Are You?

    5. Eight Mistakes That Are Destroying Your ________

    6. How to [blank]: 14 Tips That Work

These headline formulas are like ninja stars. It doesn’t matter which way you throw ‘em—they’ll get the job done. They’ll increase eyeballs on your platform at a much higher rate than headlines which don’t tap into human psychology as these do.

6. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them

Don’t worry about being overly repetitive. If you’re truly saying something original, people want to hear it repeated with different metaphors, different syntax, different vocabulary—so that they can wrap their minds around the idea.

The mortal sin of writing is entering into your first main point without having first said something to the effect of “This is what you’re going to get out of this piece of content.” If there is no explicit value add in your introduction, nobody will ever make it to your first point.

7. Be truly informative

This is a struggle for many writers. They feel that, as writers, because they dip into the pool of human emotion to compel them to write, that they have the liberty to be autobiographical, indulgently eloquent, or verbose. Don’t let your reader feel like you care more about sounding like you’re a good writer than offering them value.

Make your reader feel like you care more about them than anyone else.

One of the best ways to make your reader feel cared for is to teach people new ways of understanding, new categories for perceiving, and new tools for practice. Give—excellence in generosity is the highest-ROI marketing strategy in existence, and it always will be. Inform. Educate. Inspire.

However, it’s important not to be so informative that the reader feels lost in data. The other day, I was reading a blog called something like “How to make your writing more readable.” It was, ironically, insufferably unreadable. The author introduced me to about 10 new concepts, and I knew there was no way I’d remember them all. I had to mentally edit this author’s work for him just to walk away with something valuable.

Be informative, but keep it simple.

8. Make at least one appeal to human nature

People are predictably softened by appeals to human nature. It’s more of a psychological tactic than a literary one, but it works (which is the point).

9. Make lists as often as possible

Here’s a hard truth:

Nobody reads your content straight through.

People are skimmers. Plain and simple. Nobody’s reading your blog with a magnifying glass to try to find the deepest meanings and subtle intentions of your prose. Lists assist skimmers which, again, are most readers. The larger font of the sub-headings serve as exits on a highway—and if some exit catches their eye (point 4, for example), they will stop on the exit and explore.

Furthermore, enumerating your list (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) allows people to track with each point and remember where they want to return to in the article.

10. Thesaurus.com

No joke. Open Thesaurus.com in your browser, and put it next to your word document. Whenever you feel like your language is too simple, or you are searching for a word and can’t find it, just type the simplest word into Thesaurus.com and find something more accurate, more eloquent, more appropriate.

This tip is mainly for writers who really sense a lack of competence in their vocabulary base. There’s no shame in that. Even the best writers use a thesaurus. As you write more, those words you use will become a part of your vocabularic template, and you’ll start sounding like a fluent writing pro in no time.

Conclusion

Remember:

There’s no such thing as a “bad writer.” A million transgressions against the laws of grammar, syntax, taste, and vocabulary can be overcome by offering something truly useful and valuable for free.

There are selfish writers who can choose to no longer be selfish. There are are writers who struggle with voice, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and expression. But if they are generous, the tools here will frame their writing well enough to make it genuinely meaningful to readers, and therefore compelling for them to return.

Good writing is about being strategically generous.

I’ve laid out the strategy for you here. Now get after it: add value to your reader’s life.

Use the downloadable PDF below to plug these tips into a bigger writing strategy to grow your audience. It contains 120 pages of time-tested strategies, industry secrets, sound wisdom from successful writers to grow your platform and get better at writing.

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