How to Become a Better Writer
In the content marketing business, writing skills are essential. Yet no matter your role in the corporate (or entrepreneurial) jungle, writing well is not an option—it’s a requirement. After all, tweets travel faster than earthquakes.
Even if you’re not a confident writer, you can become one. You may never jump with joy at the thought of writing 40 pages of website copy, but writing quickly and effectively will help you when you write for the outside world (tweets, blog posts), and for internal use only (business plans, emails).
This post was sparked when a friend approached me: “Tracy,” she said, “I have a feeling my job is going to demand more writing soon. I’m just not good at writing! How do I improve?”
What a great question—and one writers of all levels should ask themselves. In answer, here’s some advice I live by:
- Read. It’s simple. Reading makes you a better writer. As long as it’s written well, it really doesn’t matter what you read—Harry Potter, the morning paper, you name it. Reading will give you a sense for what’s elegant and what’s awkward—and you won’t have to diagram a single sentence. If you’re trying to write something specific, say a business plan or a resume, get your hands on some specific examples (ask Google, or a writer friend). The blank page will be less intimidating if you have a style and format to mimic.
- Study “The Elements of Style.”Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” will reveal many new ways to write concisely and elegantly. You may want to modify some rules if you’re writing in an informal, personal style, but the basics are sound. My favorite advice from this little manual? “Omit needless words.”
- Start with the way YOU naturally think. Don’t love writing? Would rather draw a chart? Great! If you’re dealing with a complex concept, organize your thoughts in the easiest way possible. For me, this is scribbling notes all over a piece of paper (real paper!). For an engineer, it might be mapping out precisely how ideas fit together with geometric shapes. For others, it may be making an outline on PowerPoint and moving the slides around until you get the best order. The actual writing will be much easier if you’ve already organized your ideas.
- Write $**tty first drafts. Writer’s block can bring progress to a screeching halt. Get going by simply writing SOMETHING and worrying about whether or not it’s good later. Five more tips to defeat writer’s block here.
- Find a formula and stick to it. There’s a reason why many blog posts are numbered lists. They’re easy to write, read, and share. But no matter how complex the writing task, adhering to a good formula can save you hours. This may be an actual format—like headers and bullet points—or simply a general idea of what content goes where. For blog posts, here are some formula ideas from Will Davis.
- Ask for individual feedback. It’s easy to bypass this in the daily rush, but asking a friend, colleague, or professional editor for personal feedback on your writing is essential. If you already work with an editor, make sure they’re educating, not just editing. If they make changes and you don’t know why, ask for an explanation. Use those explanations to keep track of and eradicate your bad habits.
- Read your work aloud. This is a fantastic editing tactic. Reading your work aloud forces you to slow down and pay attention to the overall rhythm of your writing, as well as every single word and punctuation mark. For example, if you find yourself gasping at the end of a sentence, it’s way too long.
- Kill your babies. That sentence you love? Your favorite word? The intro you slaved over? If it’s not right upon review, you have to kill it. But don’t worry about this in your first draft! Let all of your ideas out initially, wait a day, then cut 25%. That way, to begin with, you’ll have plenty of raw material. When you’re editing, you’ll have distance from that proud feeling of finishing a piece of writing. Even if you don’t have the luxury of a day, wait an hour. Or at least go get some coffee and come back.
- Never stop learning. You should never stop and say “Woohoo! I can write now!” Always read, edit your work ruthlessly, and seek feedback from fresh eyes.
Now you’re armed: Get reading, and get writing. Striving to improve is half the battle, gaining experience and confidence will take you the rest of the way.
Any tips to add? Please comment and let me know!
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