Through most of human history, people have always sought the ability to write, and write well. Ever since man picked up a pen (or a paintbrush, or a stylus, or a stick dipped in wet ash), people have revered those who can spin tales and explain concepts and paint pictures with language.
That reverence has not dissipated with modern times. In fact, recent polls shows that 80 percent of people would like to be an author someday, a staggering figure if you compare it to the desire to participate in other crafts – say, woodworking or beekeeping.
So really, it shouldn’t be a surprise that you want to write well too. Even if you don’t have authorial aspirations, a fluency with the written word contributes directly to success in school, career achievement and other opportunities. Luckily, it isn’t hard at all to improve your craft. Even if you struggle with writing, if you make an effort to practice the following steps, you’re bound to improve … and often more quickly that you think.
So just what are these steps? Let’s dive in.
Make Sure You Have Something to Say
Many writers make the mistake of jumping into a blog post, an essay, a report or an article without making sure they actually have something to say. This is problematic, because without a clear path forward, you will quickly lose your reader. Before you sit down to write, spend 10 minutes outlining what you’re going to say. Choose a main point – a thesis, if you will – and then primary supporting points. Think through your introduction, and make sure it has a good hook, then brainstorm a clever but succinct way to wrap up. Sound too much like middle school? That’s because this method still works.
Keep an Eye on the Basics
Nothing interrupts the flow of an essay or article like incorrect language use. There are too many to cover in this article, but beware of dangling prepositions, such as “This is the sort of nonsense I don’t want to put up with.” It should be “ … with which I don’t want to put up.” Similarly, dangling modifiers are a problem for many writers, in which you attribute factors to the wrong object in the sentence. “Too busy to be bothered with looking both ways, the car hit her.” But the car wasn’t busy; she was.
Also look out for comma splices, in which two whole sentences are only separated by a comma, as well as sentence fragments, where the words are unfinished. And keep descriptive words near the objects they describe. For instance, “I found a great place to get lunch on Saturday near the docks” is confusing. Saturday is not near the docks; that’s where you want to get lunch. Instead, you might say “I found a great place to get lunch on Saturday. It’s near the docks.”
Write Shorter Sentences
Believe it or not, one of the easiest ways to improve your writing is simply to shorten your sentences. If you have two full sentences separated by an “and” or a “but,” try breaking them into one. It makes your writing punchier and gets the point across more easily. That way, your readers’ brains don’t have to hold on to so much information at once.
Find Your Voice
Finding your voice is one of the biggest challenges in writing, but with enough practice (See Step 10), you’ll get there almost without trying. In the beginning, you can take a more intentional approach, asking yourself questions such as: Am I funny or serious? Heavily researched or anecdotal? Supportive or constructively critical? These elements all add to a distinct sense of you-ness coming through your words, and that’s exactly what you want.
Use Concrete Language
Concrete language is key in entertaining and accurate writing. Whenever you can use a more concrete descriptor, do so. Instead of “said,” try “reported,” “exclaimed,” “accused” or “declared.” See how much more interesting and meaningful a sentence can become? Note: Don’t use overly florid language just to look smart. Precision, not showboating, is the key.
Slay Passive Voice!
You’ve no doubt heard of the passive voice and it’s many evils. Not only is it less interesting to read, it is often a way of avoiding responsibility or employing intentional vagueness. Consider, “The reports went out too early this week” or “The drink was spilled when no one was looking.” Such sentences have no place in good journalism, academic writing or even fiction. If something happened to the subject of a sentence (the report, the drink), then someone was responsible, because reports do not mail themselves and drinks do not hurl to the floor of their own accord. Instead, always indicate the object of a sentence: “Mary mailed the reports too early.”
Even if you DO have something important to say, it’s always possible to get lost along the way. We’ve all seen examples of writers who spend too much time on asides, or who use too many examples to illustrate a point. While examples are always great and asides can be a nice way to diffuse tension, use them judiciously. Too many and you overwhelm your reader and distract from the main point.
Observe the Greats
It’s hard to become a better writer if you never see examples of writing done well. After all, how good at tennis would you be if no one ever demonstrated a proper backswing? Not very. The good news? Becoming a better writer is often as simple (and as entertaining!) as reading. Both the classics and contemporaries have their own benefits to bring to the table, so opt for a mix.
There’s not much to say on this point other than don’t say no to a challenge. If a professor asks for help on a project, or a boss requests a special report, never say no or explain that you’re not “there yet.” If they asked, you are. Go for it.
Build a Daily Habit
While this may seem like trite advice, it truly is not. Ever heard of the 10,000 Hour Rule? Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, the rule states that to become an expert, you must spend 10,000 hours doing something. Now, perhaps you don’t want to be a writing expert, and that’s okay. But the correlation with time spent and proficiency is indisputable, so put in those hours if you want to see results.
Hopefully you now see that ramping up your writing skills isn’t a matter of finding a fairy godmother or somehow increasing your IQ overnight. Whether you’re going to business school, trying to get a job or merely hoping to improve, writing a process of diligent practice, and nothing more.
So what are you waiting for? Get started improving your life, and your craft, today.