What’s the difference between a professional writer and an amateur?
An amateur writer can be astonishingly creative, but often we think of them as lacking talent. In reality, they simply lack process. Professionals, by contrast, use frameworks to add form to their creativity.
The best writers produce huge volumes of content without a drop in quality by following a series of steps each time they write.
Good writing is formulaic, but dont be fooled into thinking you can simply follow the same path to riches every time. You need to add your own creativity into the mix. You must blend your knowledge and experience to tell a story that resonates with your reader. Your writing can be engaging in the moment, remembered after its read and have a sustained impact on the reader’s life. Isn’t that what we all want as writers?
But creativity alone lacks direction, formula by itself is boring and predictable. In this piece I want to share with you a narrative framework that promotes the best of both.
Good writing is formulaic, but don’t be fooled into thinking you can simply follow the same path to riches every time.
A story in four parts
In his book StoryBrand, author Donald Miller asserts that successful businesses lean heavily on the power of storytelling to build relationships with their customers. Stories are what get us into the hearts and minds of our people.
The elevator pitch — so-called because you should be able to recite it whilst in transit between floors in a building — is a cornerstone of your story.
Miller breaks down the elevator pitch into four parts:
- Character — who are you talking to?
- Problem — what do they want?
- Plan — how will you give them what they want?
- Success — why should they take this course of action?
As a writer, this base formula offers a powerful way to make an impact on your reader. But before we put the whole thing together, let’s take a look at each part in isolation.
Stories are what get us into the hearts and minds of our people.
1) Clearly define your character, the reader
Miller’s StoryBrand posits that all good stories feature a hero. But the problem is, businesses too often position themselves in the leading role. As writers, we tend to do the same thing when we talk about ourselves, but successful authors know that the reader is the hero of the story.
You, the writer, are their guide.
If you want to move people with your words, you must position the reader at the heart of your writing. To do that, you need to define who they are.
Successful authors know that the reader is the hero of the story.
Create a reader persona
You can get into a real tailspin with this. The challenge with creating personas is knowing where to place the camera — too close and you lose focus of the bigger picture, too zoomed out feels vague and impersonal. Here are a few principles to follow in order to create meaningful reader personas:
- Use your own real experiences where possible — don’t pull a persona out of thin air.
- Identify dreams and desires common to your reader’s community.
- Don’t overthink it.
I work with nonprofits and am frequently contacted by individuals working in small organisations tasked with managing the whole comms strategy. A persona, for my business, might look like this:
Charlotte started at the charity three months ago and is dealing with legacy data and infrastructure. She wants to improve communication with donors and demonstrate her competence to the team.
Charlotte is a fictional character, but this story has played out time and again. Small nonprofits tend to have a high turnover of staff. They tend not to have much digital infrastructure. People pick up projects then move on, each time hoping to improve the way things are done.
The challenge with creating personas is knowing where to place the camera — too close and you lose focus of the bigger picture, too zoomed out feels impersonal.
This persona gives me a great starting point for writing. Armed with this foundational character, I can write for the many Charlottes out there with almost personal effect.
Each time you write — a blog post, email or even a Tweet — think deeply about who will be reading it. Define their character and speak directly to them.
2) Understand and articulate their problem
One of the main reasons that businesses fail is because they don’t truly solve real world problems for the people they purport to serve.
This is true also of writers. We dance around the topic or talk about ourselves too much. If the first part in defining a reader persona helped us to articulate who, then this part is used to understand the what.
What’s Charlotte’s problem?
In my earlier example we have a person who:
- Is new to the organisation
- Is struggling to deal with legacy systems
- Wants to improve organisational comms
- Wants to impress her colleagues
What do you think her problem is? Most people would rush to providing a material solution. Charlotte, essentially, needs a new database system and some training on how to use it. That is the obvious problem.
But people are not so one dimensional, and her needs run much deeper than this.
It’s likely that Charlotte is feeling worried and stressed, being new to the charity, as well a sensing a pressure to make a good impression. She’s probably still learning the ropes and doesn’t yet have a grip on the role itself.
Charlotte’s problems are more complicated than they might first seem. But we wouldn’t know that unless we took the time to understand and empathise with the context of her situation.
As a writer, empathy will get you far. Every time you communicate with your desired audience, put in the effort to show them that you get it. You understand not just their material problem, but their reason for experiencing it. Once you’ve earned the reader’s trust, you can offer them a plan.
3) Draw them a map to success
Many businesses, and many writers, jump straight to this part. We’re so eager to give a solution that we rarely bother to show our working. Parts 1 and 2 demonstrate our understanding and competence, and only now should we begin to offer a solution.
Trying to give an answer to the problem too soon feels like the hard-sell.
So far, we have defined our reader and articulated their problem. This part is all about inspiring them to act. As writers, we can do this by:
- Sharing motivational stories and case studies from those who’ve already achieved success.
- Providing step-by-step instructions towards some specific end goal.
- Offering a call to action to download a book or make contact with you for a consultation.
- Talking about what might happen if they don’t follow your advice.
In many ways this part is not just the hook, the promise that draws people in; it’s also the place where you can add the most value. Where our last two parts focused on the who and what, this part is the how.
Once you’ve laid out your solution, the next part lets you show them what life could look like after working with you, or following your advice.
4) Inspire them with the possibility of success
What are the reasons for why people act? Rarely does your reader care about the software you’re discussing or the technical spec of the car you’re trying to sell. What they actually want is to achieve a certain feeling gained from a specific status that your writing can help them to reach.
They’re looking for the why.
Remember, good writing moves people to action. To do this you need to paint a picture of success.
The reader is not excited by the rigorous workout plan you’ve written so carefully about — they’re dreaming about feeling more confident in the way they look and all the possibilities it may bring.
What the reader actually wants is to achieve a certain feeling gained from a specific status that your writing can help them to reach.
Readers care very little for your story (and even less for the story of your company) unless it has a direct affinity with their own. Too often as writers, we focus on our own trials and tribulations, forgetting that the reader is the hero.
But simply keeping the reader in mind is still not enough — we must always be sure to include some statements that help them to imagine how better things will be once they’ve read your piece and taken action on it.
We can all express ourselves. Some more eloquently than others. But to communicate effectively, at scale and with frequency, processes like the one outlined here are needed.
You need not use the four parts in a linear fashion. In fact, it can help to start with the end goal — the successful outcome gained by reading your work. This can spur your reader on to pay attention to you in ways they might not otherwise have bothered. It can inspire them to follow you, download y