How older writers stay sharp

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I’ve been writing professionally for 40 years. You can’t write the same way in your sixties as you did in your twenties. But you can take steps to maintain that the quality of what you write and the enjoyment you get from doing it.

In this post, I’ll break down the elements of the writing process and how you can keep each of them sharp as you age.

Getting ideas

The writing ideas I have now are more sophisticated and more diverse than the ones I had when I was young. The reason is simple: experience. I’ve done more, met more people, read more, and had way more experiences than I had when I was a new writer.

They say you should write what you know. I know a lot more than I did when I was 22.

The challenge with ideas is to make sure you don’t get stuck in a rut. If all you think about all day long is the same four-step process for content marketing, or how all Democrats are a bunch of lazy socialists, you may find your ideas to be repetitive. You’ll be bored, and your readers will, too.

The best way to have more ideas is to learn. Listen to more people and learn from them. Read more and learn from what you read, both content and technique. Explore viewpoints completely different from — and maybe contradictory with — your own.

The world is full of new and exciting ideas in new combinations. If you’re bored, you need to pay closer attention. To the awakened writer, every experience is a potential source of ideas.

Planning and structuring

Effective writing starts with planning. The longer the piece you are working on, the more important it is to plan it out ahead of time.

The experienced writer is better equipped to plan than the novice. After all, you’ve made many more kinds of mistakes already. So you know how to avoid them.

Older writers ought to be just as good at planning. It’s just a question of having the discipline to do it.

Write your plan down. While it’s easy to lose track of what you planned, if you’ve written it down, it will all come back to you.

Research

Research fuels writing. You can’t write without content to fuel what you are writing.

Research is a whole lot easier now that each of us has constant access to all the knowledge in the world. Researchers need to develop the skills to find relevant content, vet it, and track down more details.

Practice makes a huge difference here. The more you research, the better you’ll get. It also helps to get research perspectives from collaborators. Everyone has different methods and tools; seeing how somebody else tracks down information will make you more versatile.

What about primary research?

If you’re tracking down case study interviews, use these tips to maximize your hit rate. And tap your network. Older writers have more contacts; the key is to use tools like LinkedIn to help remind you who you know that might make useful connections for you.

If you’re good at surveys and data analysis, keep practicing. That’s a useful skill for anyone seeking primary research data. If that’s not in your skill set, who do you know who could help with it?

As far as keeping track of research content, my best tip is to use the tools you’re most familiar with and maintain your notes in an orderly way. Dump the content into a Word document and arrange it into a fat outline. Or use Google Docs. Or track bits and pieces in a spreadsheet. Or collect it in another tool, like Evernote or Scrivener. Learning new tools is a challenge — if you’ve got a system that works, stick with it. Your research only helps if you can easily find what you took note of earlier.

Writing

If you want to be a fluid writer, write. Write a lot.

It’s one reason I tell authors to blog. It keeps them in practice.

Writing a lot develops your craft. Every sentence reinforces your skill at storytelling, stringing words together, making sentences connect, and infusing warmth, drama, and clarity into your text.

And self-edit. Make sentences better. Your first draft isn’t done.

Older writers who write frequently are better — they’re at the top of their abilities. Older writers who aren’t in practice will find writing more of a struggle. It’s a lot easier to keep it up than to start it up.

The one part of my brain that doesn’t work at the same level as it used to is the part that picks the right word, or remembers names. I know there’s somebody who’s a good example of what I’m writing, but what’s her name and where does she work? And there’s a word that has the exact connotation that I’m seeking, but what is that word, again?

Luckily, you can backstop that challenge with the Web. The same skills you use for research can help remind you what the missing name is. And tools like WordHippo can help you find the right synonym. You may not write as quickly, but with the Web as a prosthetic, the results can be just as good as ever.

Self-editing

I make more errors than I used to. I leave words out. I use homonyms inaccurately (and am horrified to find that I did — in the sentence just above I originally wrote “find the write synonym”). Regular readers of this blog will certainly attest to a fair number of random typos and errors.

Proofing your own work and spotting your own errors will continue to be harder. Here are 13 hacks that may help you find the mistakes, including waiting a day to review what you wrote, printing it out, and reading it out loud.

Technology

Older writers learn technology more slowly. But they can learn.

My dad learned to type, to write on a computer, and use Keynote to do teaching presentations in his sixties and seventies.

I have a set of tools I use frequently: Macintosh, Chrome, Gmail, Word, Excel, Google Docs, Google Sheets, PowerPoint, SurveyMonkey, WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for example. I occasionally fool around with Python, but that’s just for fun. I don’t use often use Instagram, TikTok, Scrivener, Slack, Illustrator, PhotoShop, Google Analytics, or a thousand other tools.

As an older writer, I’d say you need to pick your tools carefully. Will learning a new tool really make a difference? Will it improve your collaboration with others? Will you keep using it, or will it get tossed aside like the new toy your toddler just got for his birthday?

Keep learning. But don’t go nuts with new technology, because it may not be worth the effort.

Old writers are smart

All that experience is going to pay off, provided you keep practicing and learning.

Writing at the top of your craft is worth doing. Your readers will benefit. And your brain will too.

Writing keeps my brain flexible and my curiosity engaged. If you enjoy it, that’s awesome. Just know that I’m enjoying it, too.

4 responses to “How older writers stay sharp

  1. As a writer in his sixties, I sometimes reread my older writings and cringe. “If only I had already read this or that book on writing!”
    On the other hand, sometimes when I Google a subject, Google returns a link to a comment that someone left on a forum. I’ll read the comment and think, “Whoa! Who wrote this? They write like me! I bet I’d like them.” Then I look at the screen name and discover that the comment had been written by me.
    In his old age, one of the British luminaries from the Age of Reason—which one, I can’t recall—reread a work from his youth and exclaimed, “Lord, what genius!” He wasn’t boasting; he was wishing he could still write like that.

  2. It’s fun to write what you wrote years ago, and I usually think I could say the same with 20% fewer words. And surprising how many articles (I write on management) only need a small tweak to be relevant, 20 years later.

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