Blogging

16 Ways to Improve Your Writing Skills

By Dan Shewan August 07, 2014 Posted In: Blogging Comments: 14

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a marketer quite like being asked to write a blog post. Some marketers would rather wrestle with pivot tables (or grizzly bears) for days on end than write a blog post – but why?

Improve my writing skills bear attack

Writing doesn’t have to be this painful.

Writing is intimidating to a lot of people, particularly those who don’t write for a living or blog on a regular basis. The good news is that writing doesn’t have to be agonizing, and almost anybody can hone their writing skills with a little discipline and a willingness to learn. In today’s post, I’m going to share 16 ways you can start improving your writing skills right now.

1. Brush Up on the Basics

Before you can start writing incredible content, you’ll need at least an intermediate understanding of the basic principles of writing. This doesn’t mean you need to enroll in a prestigious creative writing program at an Ivy league university, but you will need to know the basics of grammar and spelling. Every writer should have a copy of “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White on their bookshelf, as this small but invaluable book is one of the most comprehensive resources on the correct use of grammar and other helpful topics. For quick and easy online resources, bookmark Grammar Girl and, of course, Merriam Webster.

Improve my writing skills grammar crackers

2. Write Like It’s Your Job

If you want to get better at something, you have to practice – and writing is no exception. Unfortunately, there are few shortcuts that can transform you into an amazing writer overnight, and even the most talented writers had to learn their craft over a period of many years.

If you want to improve your writing skills, writing on a regular basis will not only diminish your fear of the blank page (or blinking cursor), it will also help you develop a unique style. So, even if nobody reads it, keep writing. Practice makes perfect.

3. Read Like It’s Your Job

The best writers are also keen readers, and reading on a regular basis is an easy way to start developing your writing skills. I don’t just mean blog posts, either – diversify your reading material. Expand your horizons to more challenging material than you typically read, and pay attention to sentence structure, word choice, and how the material flows.

Improve my writing skills cat reading book

The more you read, the more likely you are to develop an eye for what makes a piece so effective, and which mistakes to avoid.

4. Find a Writing Partner

If you work at a reasonably sized company, the chances are pretty good that there is at least one other person who also secretly harbors a desire to become a better writer. Although writing is typically considered a solitary activity, the best writers know when it’s time to get much-needed feedback on their work.

Talk to your coworkers (or friends) and ask someone if they’d be willing to cast an eye over your work – they may spot mistakes that you overlooked. Finding a writing partner is also a great way to hold yourself accountable and keep going.

5. Join a Workshop or Take a Night Class

Most people balk at the idea of standing in front of a room full of strangers and baring their soul to the world, but joining a writing workshop can be immensely beneficial – and a lot of fun (if you manage to find a good one).

Improve my writing skills writing workshop

You don’t need to have an unfinished novel hidden away in your desk drawer to join a workshop. These days, content marketing meet-ups and professional development groups are becoming wildly popular. Join one of the many content marketing groups on LinkedIn to meet like-minded writers, or search for writing workshops near you on sites like Meetup. Pick a topic, write something, listen to the feedback of the group, and then revise it. Rinse, repeat.

6. Dissect Writing That You Admire

Most people read the same blogs or sites on a regular basis because the material appeals to them – but fewer people understand why their favorite blogs are so appealing.

Find a handful of recent blog posts you really like, then print them out. Next, just like your high school English teacher did, take a red pen and highlight things you liked: certain sentences, turns of phrase, even entire paragraphs. Examine why you like these elements, and see if there are any common threads in your favored reading material. See how writers take one subject and transition into another. Apply these techniques to your own work.

Let’s take a look at a particularly powerful (and memorable piece) from Copyblogger that serves as a great example of this.

Improve my writing skills copyblogger example

Improve my writing skills copyblogger example 2

Immediately, you’re hooked by Morris’ opening. You can’t not read to see what happens next. The pacing is excellent, it grabs your attention, and best of all, it keeps you reading. This piece was first published back in June, and I still remember it. Read the full post here, and see how Morris masterfully tells the story of a band named Death and how this relates to writing content.

7. Imitate Writers You Admire

Before we go any further, a disclaimer – imitation is not the same as plagiarism. Don’t rip off anyone’s work. Ever.

Just as you probably have a list of blogs you read often, you’ll likely also read the same writers on a regular basis. Identify what it is you enjoy about their work, and see if you can use it to improve your writing skills. Does a writer you like use humor to spice up dry topics? Try it. Do they use pop culture references to make their work entertaining and useful? Try that, too.

When I first started writing, I imitated some of my favorite nonfiction writers and essayists, such as Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Bill Bryson. I also attempted (and failed) to imitate writers such as Dave Eggers and Dan Kennedy, but soon realized that I wasn't funny enough and gave it up. Over time, I eventually developed my own style, but reading the works of these writers and seeing how they constructed their essays and books was immensely helpful to me as a writer (see tip #3).

8. Remember That Outlines Are Your Friend

The blinking cursor of a blank page is a considerable foe, even for the most experienced writers. Before putting pen to proverbial paper, sketch out an outline of what you plan to write. This will be your battle plan, and it will help you win the war. Very few – and I do mean very few – writers sit down to write anything without a solid plan in mind.

Improve my writing skills outlining with post its

An outline doesn’t have to be complex. A simple framework of which sections should appear in a particular order, along with a few sentences about what each section contains, may be enough. If the topic you’re tackling is a little more complex, your outline might have to be, too – but having an outline before you write is like having a roadmap in the glove box of your car before a road trip. If you start to feel lost, refer back to your outline and get back to kicking ass and taking names.

Let’s take a look at a real example – one of my own outlines:

Introduction

Brief summary of the post

Section 1 – What is Brand Voice?

Paragraph(s) explaining the key principles behind brand voice (style, tone, and messaging)

Examples of each

Section 2 – Developing Brand Voice with Content

Explanations of how to develop brand voice using content (written, visual, video)

Considerations for content producers/marketers to bear in mind when producing content (strategy, goals, overall brand messaging)

Section 3 – Examples of Content That Builds Brand Voice

Several examples (three or four) of content that aligns well with marketing positioning and branding of recognizable brands

Conclusion

Wrap-up

This outline eventually became my recent post about brand voice. I deviated from my initial outline slightly, but the overarching structure was always there to keep me on target.

9. Edit Your Work Ruthlessly

So, you’re writing every day (or regularly, at least), and you’re feeling more confident about your work. Awesome! Now you’re going to become your own harshest critic.

Improve my writing skills editing process

Editing is a tough skill to learn for beginner writers, because they place immense value on the time and effort they put into writing in the first place. However, a lot of writing is actually rewriting, and this is where the cold, hard eye of an editor will serve you well.

Develop the discipline it takes to eliminate extraneous words (more on this shortly). Resist the temptation to wax lyrically and get to the point. Not sure if a paragraph works? It probably isn’t. Be tough on yourself, and know when to delete or rework something. Your work will be much stronger as a result.

10. Accept That First Drafts Are Almost Always Crap

The best writers make it look so easy. After reading a great post, it’s tempting to imagine your favorite bloggers effortlessly turning in incredible posts with minimal effort before spending the rest of their day reading obscure books in a quaint corner café somewhere. Take comfort in the knowledge that this isn’t how writing works.

Improve my writing skills first drafts are crap

First drafts are almost always crap, and that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t create a masterpiece on your first attempt – chances are, you probably won’t, and that’s okay, too. Just get your ideas down on paper first, then go back and start cleaning up. Writing is an iterative process, and even the best writers have to spend a lot of time reworking material they were probably too embarrassed to show anybody.

11. Find a Good (Patient) Editor

Whether you’re trying to make the case for a content strategy to your manager or want to start guest blogging on your favorite sites, finding and working with a good editor is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing skills. I’ve worked with dozens of editors over the years, and in my experience, the best are those who show you why something doesn’t work, rather than just telling you that it doesn’t.

Improve my writing skills everyone needs a good editor

Allowing someone else to read your work can be brutally difficult for some writers, especially when they’re just starting out, but it’s crucial that you develop good habits from the outset and learn to accept constructive criticism about your work. Remember – writers are desperately needy creatures who need to be constantly reassured that they’re the creative geniuses they believe themselves to be, but you’ll need to develop a thick skin if you’re serious about your work, and a good editor is invaluable when it comes to toughening up.

12. Eliminate Unnecessary Words

Another common mistake among beginner writers (and some more experienced writers who should know better) is writing overly complex sentences in an attempt to “sound” more authoritative.

In many cases, shorter sentences can have a greater impact. You may have heard of a six-word story that was supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway, which reads, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Whether Hemingway wrote this or not is irrelevant – the power of these six words shows that brevity can be a powerful tool when used correctly, and not every sentence needs to be overwrought to get your point across.

Improve my writing skills baby shoes never worn

Let’s look at another real example from one of my posts – my very first post for WordStream, as it happens. This lengthy sentence is a prime candidate for a ruthless red pen, even if my lame jokes were intended to give it a little more flavor. I’ve edited the sentence to show you how you could edit a similar line in your own work (additions italicized).

“Whether you’re a newcomer to AdWords or have been running PPC campaigns since Google launched the platform in 2000 (with a grand total of 350 customers) for years, you’ve probably given a great deal of thought to about which keywords will result in more clicks and higher conversions – not to mention that vacation home in Lake Tahoe you’ve been dreaming about.”

13. Take a Stroll Down Memory Lane

I’ve been writing professionally, in one way or another, for the past ten years. When I look back at my early work, which I do every so often, it literally makes me cringe. I don’t do this because I’m a masochist, but to remind myself how far I’ve come.

Writing should be fun, and along with the thrill of seeing your byline for the first time, seeing how far you’ve progressed is one of the most satisfying parts of being a writer. Every now and then (but not too often), re-read your earlier work and marvel at how much better you are now than you were then. Pat yourself on the back. You’ve worked hard, so don’t be shy – congratulate yourself.

14. Don’t Be Afraid to Say What You Think

Most content on the web is bland and dreadfully boring. This is because far too many bloggers focus on regurgitating the same news as everybody else without bothering to add their own opinions. Obviously you don’t want to fall afoul of libel laws, but that doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) say what you think.

Improve your writing skills speak your mind

Once you’ve started to discover your own “voice,” don’t be shy about sharing your opinions. This makes for more interesting reading. Don’t be contrarian for its own sake, and don’t set out to purposefully piss anyone off, but make sure there’s enough of you in your writing to make it a worthwhile read for your audience.

15. Do Your Research

Aside from plagiarizing someone else’s work, nothing will undermine your credibility faster than failing to do your homework.

In their eagerness to be done with a blog post (or even major newspaper article), many writers try to take shortcuts with the facts. This can range from accidentally fudging a statistic out of haste to being lazy when it comes to sourcing or attribution. Not only can this land you in big trouble with your editor/content marketing manager/other boss-type person, it also makes you look like an amateur.

Improve my writing skills do your research

Everybody makes mistakes, and you don’t need to spend weeks cross-referencing every last statistic (see the next tip), but common sense should prevail here – don’t rely exclusively on sites like Wikipedia, and use current, primary sources whenever possible.

16. Don’t Take Weeks to Finish a Post

You should definitely take the time to write as well as you can, proofread and edit your work thoroughly, and ensure that your piece flows logically from one point to the next. However, this doesn’t mean you should take weeks to write something.

No blog post (or any piece of writing, for that matter) will ever be perfect – you have to know when it’s time to let it go. This is especially important in content marketing, because you’ll rarely (if ever) have the luxury of crafting agonizingly beautiful blog posts full of poignant sentences and evocative imagery. As you become more confident, the “writing” part of writing will become easier and faster, but never lose sight of the fact that deadlines, or editorial calendars, are just as much your masters as any boss or manager.

As for me, I’m going to take my own advice and call this post done. I hope you find these tips useful, no matter how long you’ve been writing. If you have questions or want to share your own advice, leave a comment!

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Comments

Thursday August 07, 2014

Megan Marrs Said:

Great advice Dan! I can especially relate to the difficulty of self-editing - always tough! Thankfully we have Elisa to help :)

On a side note, I really enjoyed that post you linked to about creativity & compromise.  I think in general compromising is essential to individual growth. If we aren't willing to be flexible, it's hard to grow, learn, and challenge our own assumptions. I know I never used to think "marketing" would ever interest me. I thought it sounded cheap and dull, but I gave it a try because I knew I was guaranteed to learn something new. And guess what - turns out marketing is cool, interesting, and challenging in ways I never imagined! So I'm definetly all for compromising. Sorry to go WAY off topic, but loved that post too much not to say something about it!

 

 

Thursday August 07, 2014

Dan Shewan Said:

Thanks, Megan!

Yeah, that's a really great post - I just had to use it as an example. I think we've all wrestled with the idea of "selling out," but hey, we've gotta eat, right? You're absolutely right, though, there's always something else to learn. Oh, and working in marketing is an excellent way to get used to deadlines!

In hindsight, I should have added a tip about coming to terms with selling out. Maybe next time. :)

Thursday August 07, 2014

Dave Schneider (not verified) Said:

Hey Dan,

Great tips here - writing is super important if you are trying to build an audience online or sell something.

Thanks again,
Dave at NinjaOutreach

Friday August 08, 2014

himanshusharma (not verified) Said:

Nice post. i like it. good information about writting skills.

mostly i like outline area which helps us to think about our topic and write it. really that is like a friend for a writter. And it helps me specially coz my boss told me to write a paragraph today.

Friday August 08, 2014

Computer Heros (not verified) Said:

This is Really Awesome Post, Thanks !

Monday August 11, 2014

Sara Young (not verified) Said:

I will add practice, practice, practice.  Chances are that your first blog post won't be great.  But the more your practice the better you'll get at it :-)

Monday August 18, 2014

Roseanderson (not verified) Said:

Nice article.. Thanks for sharing.. It helps a lot...

Monday August 18, 2014

helene (not verified) Said:

Hi Dan

I am as new a newbie as they come. The article was very helpful to me especially the outline section and using your own voice.

IThanks for taking the time to teach us  the bgasic of writing a blog. I'm looking forward to reading you other articles as well.

Monday September 08, 2014

Anonymous (not verified) Said:

Your post has arrived in my life at just the right moment. I need to practice eliminating unnecessary words. Sometimes my writing sounds like your very first post.

Tuesday September 23, 2014

Manoj (not verified) Said:

Hi Dan,

Way of writing is very important for attracting more readers. We should cover the topic in simple, but detailed manner.

Nice points you have suggested. Good work.

regards,

Saturday November 01, 2014

Ansar Amini (not verified) Said:

hi Dan

thanks for every advise .

and im trying to get a Phd scolarship, i home that i can writte better than now .

i wish the best for u .

Monday November 03, 2014

Anonymous (not verified) Said:

Thank you for this very informative advice. BUT YOU FORGOT TO SAY ABOUT WRITING SCHEDULES. That is one of the basic ways to improve writing skills. Have a writing schedule daily so that you cant get bored of what you have working. Likewise,writing is total kind of a job. Maraming salamat (Many thanks) Im a young filipino writer.

Sunday November 09, 2014

fel (not verified) Said:

Thank you for you tips.

For me, begginer writer really need this tips in order for me to grow like you.

I just started a blog for me to monitor my development and I hope you will help me reaching my goal .. to be a good writer.

I have'nt find yet my good editor and I hope I can find it here.

I just love writing so much....

 

Thanks

 

FEL

 

 

Friday November 21, 2014

Shakinah (not verified) Said:

Thank you D

This has been very helpful for me. I am an amateur writer. I'm not really good at it but I do love writing.

 

 

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