Who: Paula Pant
Does your writing style need improvement?
Not sure how to edit your writing?
No sweat. I’m talking to Paula Pant in this episode, and she’s here to help you become a better writer.
Listen to This Episode
Paula launched her own business at age 27. She had traveled to 30 countries by age 30, and she hates cubicles with a passion. Her blog, Afford Anything, is dedicated to developing laptop-based lifestyle businesses, crushing limits, and maximizing life. AffordAnything.com is the new gathering spot for a tribe of people who want to build wealth, create freedom, travel, enjoy epic adventures and quit the corporate grind.
Afford Anything is based on the philosophy that you can afford ANYthing, but not EVERYthing. That applies to money, of course, but also to time, energy, or any other finite resource. Paula works at the intersection of money and lifestyle.
Paula was on this podcast back in 2015, and at that time she had two goals: start a podcast of her own, and launch her first course. I checked in with her this time around, and she had great news to share. Her podcast launched in February 2016, and she already has 350,000 downloads! She’s also working on her course as we speak, and it should be ready in early 2017.
Why start a podcast? Paula thinks of herself as a writer, and she loves writing, but she said that she wanted to express herself in a totally different medium. It has also given her an opportunity to meet some of her favorite writers, because the show is interview-based. In addition, she’s got the incentive to read new authors if they’re coming on the show. But the podcast isn’t just for authors; it’s for anyone with “ideas worth sharing.”
The podcast has also deepened her relationship with her audience, particularly her most dedicated fans. She’s connecting to her audience across multiple platforms. And as Paula’s friend once put it, “when you’re in somebody’s earbuds, that’s a very intimate connection.”
Becoming a Better Writer
Outside of her podcast, however, one of Paula’s strengths is her writing. She says there’s two components to good writing:
- Originality of ideas
- Technical skill
Paula spends a lot of her time working on number 2. Crafting well-written sentences and paragraphs takes work!
Step 0: Get inspiration
This step is about taking in lots of ideas and information from outside sources. Paula says that a big part of the writing process is “synthesizing many different thoughts and ideas that you learn from the outside world, and pulling that all together and contextualizing it within your own framework.”
How do you do that? Read a lot, and listen a lot.
Those two things will help you build a strong foundation to work from. Paula recommends reading books within your niche and related to your niche for the ideas part of your writing. But if you want to improve your technical writing skills, there’s a huge benefit in reading anything, even if it’s way outside your niche.
Step 1: Brain dump
Get a piece of paper, or a fresh document on your computer, and just brain dump.
Paula sets aside protected time for this task. She spends at least an hour writing every weekday.
How much of the brain dump actually gets published? Very little.
Good writing is a combination of three things: reading, writing, and editing. That last one is so, so important. It is impossible to overstate how important editing is. If you publish everything in your brain dump, you haven’t really edited it, and the article will not be as good as it could be.
Step 2: Shelve it
Put your daily brain dump to one side, and don’t think about it for a while. Leave it alone for a minimum of 24 hours. Ideally, you’d step away from it for a week, two weeks, a month, even six months.
Stepping away before editing allows you to look at the piece with fresh eyes. You’ll see it more clearly.
Step 3: Start editing
This is where it gets fun. We’re going to look at the specifics of how to edit. It’s important to know what you’re looking for, or else you won’t be effective.
If you have access to a talented editor, send your articles to that person before you publish them. Paula had the experience of working for a daily newspaper, where she sat down with her editor every single day and worked through her articles in detail. This was the time when she really honed her writing skills, and her abilities at the end of that job far exceeded what she was capable of producing when she started out.
Editing takes practice, just like writing. But you have to practice smart. Paula cites Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown, who says that sheer practice alone does not equal improvement. You’ve got to practice at the edge of what you’re capable of.
So that quantity of hours that you spend isn’t the only thing that matters. The quality counts, too. Are you the musician who only plays songs you know well over and over, or do you constantly challenge yourself to learn new material? Are you the figure skater repeating the same jump, or are you always falling on your butt trying to pick up new tricks?
What does quality practice look like with writing? Paula says you should read books about how to be a better writer and then consciously apply those tips during the editing process.
You’ve also go to edit more than once. Paula will go through her pieces five or ten times before they’re ready to publish.
1. “Kill your darlings”
The #1 tip that Paula took from Stephen King’s book was to “kill your darlings.” Just because you’ve spent a lot of time working on something doesn’t mean it should get published. If you’re only going forward with something because you’ve invested time in it, you’re serving yourself instead of your audience. In that case, you need to kill the piece.
If it’s easier, don’t send it straight to the trash. Paula keeps a separate file folder for her darlings!
2. Get rid of adverbs
This one also comes from Stephen King, who says to get rid of almost every adverb.
An adjective modifies a noun. In the sentence, “I saw a beautiful flower,” “beautiful” is the adjective.
An adverb modifies a verb. King says that if you need an adverb to modify your verb, what you really need is a better verb.
Here’s an example: “He shut the door quickly.”
“Quickly” is the adverb in that sentence. Is there a better verb that we could use besides “shut?”
Paula suggests “He slammed the door.” It’s much more powerful and more evocative.
3. Be judicious about adjectives
If an adjective states the obvious or doesn’t add anything to the sentence, cut it. This one actually applies to all the words in your sentence. Editing is partly about trimming the fat and getting rid of words you don’t need.
Let’s look at an example sentence:
“Twelve rescue ambulances stood by to rush injured people to nearby hospitals.”
How many of those words are really necessary?
We can cut “rescue.” What other kind of ambulance is there?
We can cut “rush.” How many ambulances go slowly?
We can cut “injured.” The ambulances wouldn’t be there for healthy people.
We can cut “nearby.” An ambulance wouldn’t normally go to a far away hospital.
We can even cut “hospital.” Where else would an ambulance go?
So once we’ve cut all of those words, we get:
“Twelve ambulances stood by.”
That much simpler sentence gives us all the information we need.
4. Remember the fundamental sentence structure
If in doubt, revert to this basic sentence structure: subject, verb, object.
If you structure a sentence in this way, you’re unlikely to add anything unnecessary. You’re also more likely to use the active voice.
Here’s an example: “The girl threw the ball.”
You could write: “The ball was thrown by the girl.” But that sentence uses the passive voice, and it reverses the basic sentence structure. The object comes before the subject. It’s also too wordy. “The girl threw the ball” is much stronger.
5. Don’t start a sentence with a dependent clause
A dependent clause is a part of your sentence that can’t stand on its own. It wouldn’t be a full sentence if you ended it with a period instead of a comma. It depends upon the rest of the sentence.
Paula actually found an example of this on becomeablogger.com, on the How to Start a Blog page. I wrote:
“Well (making a long story short), that blog landed me my dream job as a university professor in a doctoral program even without a PhD.”
The dependent clause in that sentence is “Well (making a long story short).” And it is so unnecessary! It doesn’t add anything, so we can just cut it.
Another problem in that sentence comes at the end. Paula knows that I mean to say, “I didn’t have a PhD and I got the job anyway,” but that’s not what my sentence says. Phrases modify whatever they’re closest to in a sentence. So when I write “in a doctoral program even without a PhD,” it seems like I’m saying there weren’t any PhDs in the doctoral program.
So how do I fix it? Paula has a couple of suggestions.
I could say, “I landed my dream job as a university professor despite not having a PhD, thanks to my blog.”
I could also break it up into several sentences, like this:
“I landed my dream job as a university professor. I didn’t even have a PhD. How did I do it? It was all thanks to my blog.”
Paula wanted to leave you with two more things to think about.
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft is [bleeeeeeep]!” Hemingway is one of the greatest writers of all time. If his first drafts are terrible, you don’t need to feel bad about yours. First drafts are always awful. They’re supposed to be! Don’t worry. Even Hemingway needed to edit.
Finally, don’t edit during your brain dump! This rule is so hard to follow, but it’s so important. Trying to edit while you brain dump can interrupt your workflow and even lead to writer’s block.
There’s an app that can help you with this one, which Gideon Shalwick recommended to me. It’s called The Most Dangerous Writing App , and it actually deletes what you’ve already written if you pause for more than 5 seconds!
If you’re interested in what Paula’s up to, head over to AffordAnything.com and sign up to her email list. That way you’ll be the first to know when you course is ready. Plus you’ll have access to all of her amazing existing content!
- 203 How to Brighten Your Content with Personality, Story, and the Occasional Outburst- with Paula Pant – My first interview with Paula Pant way back February 2015.
- Afford Anything– Paula Pant's blog
- Afford Anything Podcast – Paula's podcast launched in February 2016 and now has 350,000 downloads
- Recommended books about writing:
- The Most Dangerous Writing App – An app that will help you with your writing and practicing it under time pressure.