To become a better writer, it’s important to reflect on the way you wield your language. After all, language is our strongest tool for communicating with the world around us, especially on a larger scale.
Contrary to popular belief, writing awesome content isn’t simple or easy.
There are countless books and tutorials dedicated to the art of writing–one book might teach you how to write a killer speech, and another might explain the rules of English grammar.
Countless others will teach you how to be a funny writer, or a fantasy writer, or a frickin’ funny fantasy writer. Some people try all their lives to write something amazing, and eventually give up on the dream because they never managed to master the skill.
Some people think John Ashbery’s poems are the most beautiful works of literature ever written. Others can’t understand why his poems form a major part of American college literature curriculums.
“Good” writing is subjective.
Instead of trying to be the writer that pleases everyone, focus on setting a goal.
What kind of writer do you want to be? What are you trying to achieve when you slam those words down on the paper (or… screen).
- If you’re writing to sell, then do readers feel enthusiastic about the product or service you’re offering after they’ve read your copy?
- If you’re writing a high fantasy novel, are your readers emotionally invested in the characters, and can they make sense of the fictional world you’ve created?
- If you’re writing an informative blog post, do your readers truly learn something new, or do you simply rehash old information?
People aren’t born as gifted writers. And there’s no handy magical spell that can instantly make you a great writer, which would, in turn, help you be a better salesman and marketer and orator and leader and… you get it.
You might be wondering, What’s so great about writing, and is it really a skill I need to learn?
You could scrape by in life without improving your writing. If you run a business, you can just hire a pro copywriter or a content writer to do it.
If you’re a public speaker, you can just hire someone smarter and wiser than you to write the best speeches your audience has ever heard.
But writing is, at its heart, the art of communication.
Don’t you want to be better at communicating?
Why bottle up angry feelings when you could write them out, or express them clearly? (Writing helps you manage your emotions).
Why get stuck in a rut feeling horrible about your life when you could reflect on all the amazing stuff that’s happened? (Writing in a gratitude journal helps cultivate positive optimism).
Why stay stuck in the same old, same old when you could get better every day? (Being a writer requires a lot of reading, and allowing yourself to consider different perspectives can help you shape your life for the better).
Why sit alone in your basement when you could share your big ideas with people who truly want to hear them? (The growth of thought leadership means that you can have a massive impact just by publishing a single article on the Internet–if it goes viral).
So, what are the steps to becoming a better writer? Time to spill the deets.
#1 Read. A LOT.
Gordon Ramsay wasn’t born a cooking god, nor did he have natural prowess with a spatula. He became a legendary cook after years of training and learning.
If I told you to go into the kitchen and bake me the best Danish in the world, you wouldn’t just go in and toss ingredients together.
You’d do your research, and look at recipes that have already found success. By tasting the delicious recipes, you can tweak and modify your own until you really do come up with the best Danish recipe in the world. (If you figure it out, let me know).
The same thing goes for writing. If you want to write something gorgeous, then you need to “taste’ gorgeous books. Read the classics, and read critically acclaimed work from great writers you admire.
If you want to write ads so convincing that your audience can’t reach for their credit card fast enough, then learn from the master marketer, David Ogilvy. Read his works and his advice.
- What does he do consistently?
- What words does he avoid?
You could even analyze his sentence structure: how often does he use adverbs, like “quickly”, “slowly”, and “intimidatingly”.
- Does he write in passive voice or active voice?
- How does he talk to his readers–like a friend, a benevolent teacher, or an eager salesman?
And hey–you might not want to be an ad copywriter. In that case, reflect on the type of writer you want to be.
Do you want to write action-packed, full-speed stories about dashing heroes and femme fatales? Read Ian Fleming (the author of the James Bond books and stories)!
Do you want to wax poetic about romantic scenes that’ll absolutely break your readers’ hearts, then go for James Joyce or F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you want to write compelling personal narrative essays, then read more Joan Didion and Brian Doyle.
So on, so forth.
- What do you want to write?
- Who currently writes that stuff?
Read their work voraciously.
Don’t even think about writing yet. Just read and read and read and read and let all that style seep into your brain.
#2 Write how you talk.
In the complex world of extraordinary literature, purple prose is a bane upon all readers–text so extravagantly ornate as to break the reader’s flow, muddle up their dizzying thoughts, and draw unnecessary attention to itself, much the same way as a small, peeled orange sitting open on a kitchen counter would draw hordes of ants.
Did you understand a single thing I said? (Five bucks that you didn’t).
And why? Because it’s ridiculous.
Purple prose is, for some weird reason, prevalent in the manuscripts of would-be science fiction writers.
However, it’s not exclusive to them alone–plenty of people try to protect their paltry personality through purple prose.
MYTHBUSTER TIME. Flowery language doesn’t make you look smart.
Toss the big words out; people don’t have time to pull out a thesaurus or a dictionary when they’re reading your writing. They just want to enjoy the words. And the best way to ensure that they have a good time is to write the way you talk.
Read your work out loud.
How ridiculous do you sound, on a scale of one to so-suffocating-that-everyone-avoids-you-from-miles-away? If you sound normal, then you’ve done a good job.
Still not understanding why purple prose sucks?
It’s because your audience will get distracted by the way you write, when you really want them to focus on what you’re saying.
Pretend you’re receiving a parcel.
Ideally, you’d be excited about whatever is in the box–not excited about the messenger. Don’t distract your readers from the meaning of your text.
If they feel inconvenienced by the way you write, then you’ve failed. Badly.
This is especially poignant with business writing.
Don’t make your reader a victim. Empower them. Put the decision in their hand, and let the story flow around them.
TIP: Try reading what you write aloud. If you’re having difficulty, then chances are your audience will, too.
#3 Word vomit.
One great exercise that can quickly improve your writing is to vomit a bunch of words every morning.
Not literally, of course–this exercise involves a blank Word document (or Google Docs, if that’s more your thing), twenty minutes with Toggl, and some super-fast fingers.
Remember Natasha Bedingfield’s song Unwritten? Remember how she sang, “Release your inhibitions, feel the rain on your skin?”
DO THAT, but with your own writing and thoughts. Let yourself go and give yourself the freedom to say anything that comes to mind.
It could be sentences or prompts, or evocative words–write about what happened last night, or write about the beautiful weather, or write about your crazy cravings for pancakes.
It might look silly, but I promise–give it a few weeks and look back, and you’ll be able to find a few diamonds (or, at the very least, some other precious gems) in the rough.
#4 Take a break.
Some of my best short story and essay topics popped by while I was on the toilet, or in the car on the way to a dentist appointment.
It was frustrating, actually, because I’d spent a whole day in front of the computer, forcing myself to squish ideas out of my head, and nothing had worked.
Give your brain a break.
Relax, and don’t take writing too seriously. Try not to take anything too seriously–for years, I desperately tried to live up to this mental ideal of being a genius literary writer, and writing the next amazing novel.
THE ONE THAT WOULD BE STUDIED IN SCHOOLS EVERYWHERE.
That goal was lofty, and it just didn’t make sense. I continually crippled my own writing to try and fit into a box I had imagined for myself. It was the equivalent of tying my legs up and trying to climb Mount Everest.
I still have those desires, of course–to write a brilliant book that changes the world. But I don’t make that my focus anymore.
Instead, I allow myself to write the way I want. I’m more honest with my words, and I’m a lot more realistic about where I want to go with my writing.
You don’t have to change the entire world to make a difference. In the long run, being a famous author isn’t that important. (It’s not a life-and-death situation, anyways).
Take a break from writing and give yourself room to breathe and live.
Collect those experiences and enrichen your own soul. It’s alright to come back in a week, a month, a year, or even a decade–your words will still be there, and you’ll be a more mature person.
The best thing? All of that growth and positive change will show in your writing.
#5 Revise after at least 6 weeks.
Time is a precious resource, and you won’t always have much of it.
Some ad campaigns need to be published immediately, in response to a viral article or meme. And sometimes, your client sucks and asks you to take on a super-duper-rush project.
If you do have time to revise, then take it.
If you try to revise something you’ve just written, you won’t be subjective. You’ve probably revised the sentences so many times that it all seems like junk in your brain. That’s the worst possible mindset for revision.
After you’ve written something, give yourself a few weeks to forget about it. Enjoy life, chase a sunset, go barbecuing with the neighbors. You could even set a reminder a few weeks in the future with the calendar app of your choice.
The wait isn’t always fun, but it establishes distance between you and your work.
The emotional attachments will still be there, but they won’t be as clingy, and you can separate your ego from your text long enough to make positive changes.
Give it a once-over, then revise as objectively as possible.
If you have trouble remaining objective with your work, or if you’re on a tiny deadline, then rope someone else in to help out.
Maybe you have a beta reader or a good friend with too much time–get them on the e-mail chain, or send them an excerpt.
You could also hire a freelance editor to look over the work and ensure that it’s as clear and precise as possible. There are plenty of options, though some are more expensive than others.
Take it easy, fellow writer.
Working yourself up into a paranoid frenzy will only make your writing worse. That’s why I’ve got one more secret-ish tip for you: Get to your happy place, then write.
What does your happy place look like?
Scented candles, a child-free office, a handy Toggl timer, a fuzzy rug… these are all parts of my happy place. Build your ‘happy place’–then settle in for a while, let go of your harsh expectations, and write. That’s all you have to do.