Five Things I’ve Learned From Writing Professionally

I have been making a living through words on pages, in one way or another, since 2001.

Over the years, this has taken many forms: proofreading, poetry, copywriting, editing, academic research, translation… the list goes on.

Currently, on top of my various other jobs, I also edit a couple of websites. Doing so has recently given me cause to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned about writing over the years.


Writing and editing are different skills

Some of the best writers I know are a bit crap at grammar. They pepper their writing with commas, spell words incorrectly, and sometimes – gasp! –  misplace apostrophes.

But stylistically, they’re great.

And that’s what an editor’s for: to go through and wheedle out all those pesky little errors, so that the writer can concentrate on getting words onto the page in a way that will draw the audience in and make them want to read more.

Editing other people’s work is 1000x easier than editing your own


When someone else sends me a piece of writing, it’s easy to go through it and pick out the errors. It’s also easy to step back from it and work out whether it’s good or not.

It’s really freaking hard to do that when the writing came from somewhere inside my own head.

Almost every time I post something on here, I find some kind of typo in it later. Originally, that amazed me – I’m a proofreader, I thought, this never happens. Except it does, because you already know what you’re trying to say, so your brain just sort of skips over the text and goes “Yup, yup, all good, just post the fucking thing”.

Which probably isn’t helped by the fact that I usually write my blog posts just before I have breakfast.

Fiction is hard


I always assumed I’d write a novel.

I’ve actually written several, and sent a couple off, and had back the rejection letters that are a natural part of the process.

I’ll keep sending them off, and getting them bounced back, and making a few changes and sending them off again, until…

Until what? Until someone finally decides to give it a go? Or until I get bored and tired of the whole process?

Maybe both.

But the process of writing novels has taught me a lot. Mainly, that writing fiction – for me at least – is much harder than writing factually. You have to climb inside the mind of your characters, locate yourself inside a storyline, and not lose your grip on that even while you’re simultaneously standing outside of it, narrating it to yourself so you know what you need to write next.

I was always a huge fan of fiction, but now I have a renewed respect for novelists.

Writing online is different from writing offline


I excel at academic writing.

I am at my most comfortable when I’m penning dense paragraphs of text (literally penning, with an actual pen) and making things as complicated as possible. Pulling apart knotty problems in philosophy, describing in detail the research we’re doing as psychologists.

Academic writing is really different from writing online.

Writing offline in general is really different from writing online.

Writing online involves short, snappy sentences and lots of paragraph breaks, because we all have the attention spans of fucking gnats when we’re constantly being bombarded by phone ringtones and colleagues’ demands and that itching little Twitter notification that tells you there are (4) things you haven’t read in the last thirty seconds.

Has it made me a better writer? I’m not sure. In some ways, I think it’s made me a worse one, certainly at the type of writing I enjoy the most.

But it’s also made me a more diverse writer, and has given me an appreciation of writing for an audience which I’d never had from writing research papers.

I have a writing limit


If you’d told young scar she’d one day get paid for writing, she’d have been ecstatic. And she’d have imagined herself sitting down at the desk early in the morning and writing non-stop until long after sunset.

Which is far from the reality.

I’d say I have maybe three good articles in me per week, plus about 5,000 words of fiction, plus about two pages of a research paper.

I just can’t write more than that. When I’ve finished one long, well-researched article on a subject, I can’t make my brain write another one. It gets some kind of writing fatigue.

I can force myself to keep writing, but it won’t be good. My brain needs a break. It needs to pull itself away and do something else for a bit before it can go back and carry on arranging words on pages in an order that people will find interesting.

What has writing regularly taught you? 

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