Writing to learn

Following the publication of the A-Z of better brand language, our founder Rob was asked by writers organisation 26 to reflect on what he'd learned from writing his third book. There's so much to gain from learning to write. But what about writing to learn?

Writing to learn

by Rob Self-Pierson

They say everyone has a novel in them. I’m not so sure. 

So far I’ve found two travel memoirs. And I’m about to publish the A-Z of better brand language, the definitive guide to improving how people behind brands work with words. But I’ll leave novel writing to fellow 26ers, like Elise Valmorbida, John Simmons and Miranda Dickinson.

I’m a creative non-fiction writer you see, happiest when telling stories about the stuff of everyday life. My first book came out in 2015, my second in 2019. Each took me a year to write, and many years more to prepare. The journey — from idea to lost weekends writing to launch night — taught me lots about the craft I love.

Not just that writing a book can at times feel, in the words of strategists Craig+Bridget, like ‘digging a deep hole with a teaspoon’. But plenty about the delicate relationship between writer and reader; the incalculable value (and pleasure) of editing; economy; the power of emotion and vulnerability; and about how to navigate tough times, when the words just won’t flow. 

In the A-Z, I explore a lot of this: lessons from writing books, with insight from over a decade of writing for and advising brands. Page by page, letter by letter, from Belief to Surprises, Mistakes to Play, there’s specific advice on writing more effectively. 

Stepping back, I now see there are bigger themes to the book. Key takeaways, as the brand world might say. If a client keen on writing asked me about those themes, I’d group them into five and say:

1/ Your reader is everything
Whether you’re guiding someone across Dartmoor by full moon or encouraging them to invest £30k in a degree for their first-born, what you write is for your reader. For their reading pleasure.

Your reader is generous enough to give you their time. Do all you can to fill it with colour, wonder, fascination, joy and intrigue.

The more you give, the greater everyone’s reward, yours included.

2/ Top writing requires top editing
Twinned with took forty-six redrafts. Moonwalking over thirty. In the A-Z (just twenty!), I write about how sculptors chip and gouge and rasp and polish until their work is smooth and elegant.

I’ve learned that everything I write deserves that craftsperson-like dedication and obsession. Because writing truly is a craft. 

With focused edits, a jagged draft can turn smooth and elegant.

3/ Simplicity wins every time
The more extraordinary your subject – whether an eccentric US war afficionado giving you a tour of a German twin town, or new e-bike brand you’re helping to position – the less you need to dress it up. 

As a young writer, I didn’t realise that. I was wordy, showy, always trying to dazzle. Today I’ve learned to embrace the art of simplicity.

Strip away complexity and adornments for writing to connect.

4/ It’s important to enjoy yourself 
I write about learning as you play in the A-Z. About exploring the world for inspiration. About writing through doubts and fears. About celebrating even the smallest successes.

I’m saying: ‘Enjoy yourself when you write.’ The more you enjoy it, the more you’ll do it. And learn. And enjoy. And write. And learn…

There’s a thrill to making with words, right? A kind of magic.

5/ You can do it
Moonwalking was a ten-year project. Speaking to fellow authors, that’s not unusual. Ideas take time to evolve, a narrative to line up, a voice to grow. Doubts are natural, confidence a diva.

The simple fact is writing isn’t easy. In the A-Z, I write about belief: belief in the power of words to transform, and belief in yourself. 

To that keen client, I’d say you can do it. Just keep writing.

Tempted to write a book? Do it. It will be one the most wonderfully challenging and rewarding experiences of your writing life. Perhaps even your life life. See how it improves your craft.

This article first appeared on 26.org.uk

by Rob Self-Pierson