So you want to be a writer, huh? Cool. Oh, you want to make money writing, too? Even better. The thing is, though, that to make money writing you have to be good at it. I firmly believe that writers aren’t born, they’re made. To be a good writer, you have to work hard. Really hard. But it’s doable.
Here are some steps I’ve taken to improve my writing; I think you’ll find them helpful on your journey to becoming a better writer, too:
1. Write daily.
In the case of writing, practice makes perfect. The truth is, none of us are perfect writers, but what sets some writers apart is that they practice. Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers that expertise in a skill comes through at least 10,000 hours of practice.
I don’t know about you, but even with all my college writing and my years of content writing included, I’m not sure that I’ve reached the 10,000 hour point yet. While 10,000 hours seems like an insurmountable goal, Gladwell’s point is that truly great people practice, practice, practice. Don’t expect to be a great writer without putting your time in.
Make it your goal to write for at least 30 minutes a day. Over a year’s time of writing 5 days a week, you’ll have written for 130 hours!
2. Use a mix of simple, compound, and complex sentences.
Your writing will improve drastically if you mix up your sentence types. Simple sentences alone make your writing sound short and choppy; compound sentences alone will make your readers tired of coordinating conjunctions. After a few too many complex sentences, your audience will be done with subordinating clauses. And too many compound-complex sentences will lose your audience in the deep dark abyss of confusing writing.
Need a grammar refresher? Here are the basic sentence types:
Simple sentence: Subject + verb.
Compound sentence: Subject + verb, coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, etc.) + subject + verb.
Complex sentence: Subordinating conjunction (because, if, etc.) + subject + verb, subject + verb OR Subject + verb + subordinating conjunction + subject + verb.
Compound-complex sentence (order of the clauses can vary): Subject + verb, + coordinating conjunction + subject + verb + subordinating conjunction + subject + verb.
Write a paragraph. Reread it and underline the simple sentences, circle the compound sentences, highlight the complex sentences, and put a square around compound-complex sentences. Do you use one more than the other? Rewrite the paragraph using a mix of all four types.
3. Get proofreading help.
If you are anything like me, you are blind to errors in your writing. It’s easy to read what you think you’ve written and miss what you’ve really written. When I proofread my own writing, unless I’m very careful, I can miss glaring errors.
Enlist someone to help you out. This person does not necessarily need to be a writer, but they should have a good grasp on the English language and a good eye for errors.
Start a buddy system with another writer. You read their work, they read yours.
4. Use simple words.
Big words may make you sound smarter, but your writing is not about you: it’s about your audience. Use words that they would understand, and don’t use any more words than necessary.
For example, instead of
“The utopian urban developmental region actively attracted new places of employment to stimulate the area’s stagnating economy,"
“The city worked to attract new businesses to support the local economy.”
The first sentence is all about you, the writer, and how smart you are. The second sentence is all about the audience and helping them read and understand easily.
If you’re not sure if your writing is easy to read, run it through a readability test, like the Flesch-Kincaid.
5. Use strong words.
We millennials are the like-um-very-just generation. I’m still attempting to banish like from my everyday conversation. Even if you can’t quite give up your likes and ums in oral communication, exiling empty words from your written communication will make your writing much more forceful and pleasant to read.
What are your empty words? Mine are qualifiers: very, just, or a bit. I have to actively work to not write those words.
Free write a few paragraphs. Don’t pay any attention to your style; simply write what comes to you. Go back and reread: do you overuse any weak words? Try to rewrite using different, stronger words.
6. Put complex ideas or sentence structures at the end of the sentence (or paragraph).
This is a tip I picked up in a writing class in college. Make your writing about your audience by putting simpler concepts or structures at the beginning of your sentence and complex ones at the end. Their brains will be able to better process your writing when they can tackle simplicity first, then complexity.
Here’s an example of doing it wrong: Because the English language is a compilation of German, French, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and even bits of Asian languages, it is complex. What’s wrong with this sentence? The subordinate clause (the because clause) is long and harder for the brain to process. It would be better written as The English language is complex because it is a compilation of German, French, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and even bits of Asian languages.
Some circumstances may call for complexity at the beginning of a sentence or paragraph, but unless starting with complexity is absolutely necessary, try to start with simplicity and work toward complexity.
Write an explanatory paragraph about a topic you know well. Presume your audience doesn’t know anything about it. Reread it and circle complex ideas or structures at the beginning of the sentence. Then rewrite it, moving complexity to the end.
7. Wait a day or two before editing.
I’m terrible at this. I’m so excited to be done writing or I’m on a tight deadline, so I hit submit or publish or send before my writing has had time to settle. Your proofreading and editing endeavors will be more successful if you take time to step away and revisit your work with fresh eyes.
Set personal deadlines a day or two in advance of hard deadlines so you have time to edit and rewrite.
8. Re-read it at least once aloud (but probably more).
Even though I forget to allow my writing to settle, I always read aloud. Reading aloud may not help you catch all of your mistakes, but it will help you find glaring omissions or awkward structures. You may feel funny reading to yourself at first, and your cat may look at you like you’re nuts, but once you’ve caught a few embarrassing errors, you’ll see it’s well worth the effort.
Feel uncomfortable reading your writing aloud? Find your old favorite stuffed animal and read to it. Or read to your dog–cats may look askance, but your dog surely won’t.
9. Read well-written books and articles.
You can’t be a writer without reading. Reading all types of books or articles–fiction, self-help, inspirational, histories, biographies, and informational–will increase your vocabulary, help you recognize what good writing looks like, and give you new ideas to write about.
Make a book list to work through this year. You may also want to find a few periodicals like the Harvard Business Review or The New York Times to read on a daily basis.
Bonus: Make it all about your audience.
Have you noticed how many times I’ve mentioned audience? Many of these tips and tools boil down to making the lives of your audience easier. Your job as the writer is to make reading easy, and that’s a hard job. When you write, put yourself in your your reader’s shoes; when you edit, put yourself in your reader’s shoes. What can you do to make your writing easier to read?
How do you know if your writing is all about your audience? Let a friend read your article for you and ask them these three questions:
What was the main point of the article?
Was it simple and easy to understand?
Did I use too many big words or too much jargon?
Did I use any words too often?
If their answers are at all negative (and make them be totally honest with you. No hurt feelings allowed!), rewrite with your audience in mind.
Becoming a good writer takes work, but it’s entirely doable. Try out these 9 steps to improve your writing. My guess is that you’ll be amazed at the difference!
What are your no-fail writing tips? I’m always looking for more ways to make my writing better!