What is good writing? The answer is, of course, subjective. What isn’t, however, is that you know it when you see it — because it keeps your attention, interest and makes you feel something. If you ever wondered how you can become better at it, you’ve come to the right place because I’m going to share 10 tips from 20+ years of doing it.
In the era of smartphones, emojis and videos that social media curiously calls “stories,” the written word has taken a bit of a hit. Amirite? Short attention spans are at an all-time high, personal connection an all-time low. Screen time is up, free time is down. These days, we’ve been conditioned to express ourselves with pre-drawn pictures to show each other how we feel. Memes and GIFs, instead of rants and riffs. ‘Xx’s and ‘oo’s’ instead of real-life kisses/hugs. Symbols and imagery instead of happy, sad and syrupy.
And to that, the English language lets out a collective sad face emoji.
With no sign that this trend will let up, it never hurts to have a reminder of the power and necessity behind the written word. A quick prodding as to why putting words to paper (or screen) will always be in vogue, no matter how many robots try to take our writing jobs. Especially with the stakes of having well-done content/content marketing never greater for companies and brands.
That said, writers will always be the heart and soul of storytelling. That’s why I key-punched this as a refresher for some — a crash course for others. Whether you consider yourself a writer or not, the tips below can serve as a practical guide to help you refine your craft while employing new skills, better work habits, and maybe, just maybe, change your narrative once and for all.
A quick caveat: In the classic ’80s film ‘Back to the Future,’ Doc Brown once famously said, “Rules? Where we’re going, there are no rules.” That applies to writing to a degree. But there are suggestions. Strong ones. Common threads many writers agree on — ranging from loose suggestions to best practices to 100-percent absolutes. All three in this range have been contemplated here.
Here are 10 writing tips that will vastly improve your writing skills:
1. Read as much as humanly possible
Speaking of ’80s films, do you remember the robot from ‘Short Circuit’? Johnny 5 would rather inhumanly flip through books begging for “Input! More input!” while demonstrating an ability to speed-read and digest loads of information at once.
This has always been a fantasy of mine. Why? Because the more you read, the better you write. But wait, you’re saying you don’t have time to read in between dropping your kid off at school and perfecting that which you call your day job? I get it. But here’s the thing: To write well, you must read well (and often). That’s how you expand your vocabulary, bone up on slang, wordplay, sentence construction and the art of writing emotionally impactful words or stirring calls-to-action.
It defies logic to think that you’ll be able to write quality things without reading quality content. It could be an op-ed about your preferred political candidate or a friend’s novel take on Medium. Whoever inspires you, devour them with purpose.
Which brings me to my next point…
2. Find someone who inspires you — then outdo them
Ask a writer who their inspirations are and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. The important thing is to have them.
Consider what makes the stories you love resonate for you. Then do your best imitation of those for which you can’t get enough of. Would we have Hemingway without Mark Twain? J.K. Rowling without C.S. Lewis? Stephen King without Agatha Christie?
Probably not. Certain geniuses blaze a trail for others. Kobe Bryant idolized Michael Jordan and then patterned his game after arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time. In doing so, he too became one of the absolute best.
Respect greatness. Decide which writers have the best moves, the ones that speak to you, that you can update in a way relevant to today. The process of good writing can often be a reinvention of the masters of old for an audience that’s new. That’s not to say you should plagiarize anything. No, no, no. Borrowing is better. Don’t let their style define who you are, just influence who you become.
A few writers who have improved my writing skills over the years…
- A.J. Jacobs: New York Times bestselling author, journalist, America’s favorite guinea pig.
- Bill Bryson: Humorist, travel writer, bestselling author too many times to count. This man could write about pocket lint and make it sound fascinating.
- Stephen King: Have anyone’s stories had more movies and TV shows inspired by them? I fear not.
3. Writers write. Period.
How many people have you met that call themselves writers, but when you ask to read something they’ve written, they point to their last tweet?
Writers write. Period. Usually because they want to, but also because they have to — because they have something lighting a fire inside them. The best understand that the more they do it, the better their craft will be.
Make sure you make time for your words. Start a journal, a blog, a column on Medium or LinkedIn. Whatever it is, writers find the time to express themselves, whether it’s on paper, tablet or phone screen. There’s something on your mind? Bring it to the world. Own your voice. Define your POV.
Or just write and let it define itself for you. Many times writers don’t know what they want to write until they get to it. There’s nothing more beautiful than when you start slow, get into a groove and words just start pouring out of you. And you can’t stop.
But it won’t happen if you don’t make the time. So…
4. Create a writing process — and stick to it
Don’t just trust you’ll find a window to sit down and work. It won’t happen. Digging deep involves making the time to work, not just trusting you’ll find it. Create the space in your schedule necessary to open the floodgates. For some like James Patterson, it used to be the early morning hours before heading off to his full-time advertising job.
Others, like Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, work late at night. And into the morning.
If you don’t define your window and stick to it, you’re asking to be sucked into a content vortex or social media rabbit hole that, if you’re lucky, spits you out by day’s end.
Here’s an example of the writing schedule I had as a young, hungry freelance journalist in my mid-20s before starting my professional career in digital media and advertising:
6 a.m. Wake up, eat breakfast.
6:45-7:45 a.m Go to the gym.
8:15-8:45 a.m. Shower, maybe.
9-9:30 a.m. Read something inspiring.
9:30-12:30 p.m. Sit down to write, aspiring to be better than what I just read.
12:30-1:15 p.m. Eat lunch.
1:15-6 p.m. Write more.
6-8 p.m. Dinner, TV and whatever else.
8-10 p.m. More writing!
That’s about 10 hours dedicated to seeing what words I could put to the page. Was it all good? Hell no. Not at the beginning. But it got me trained on what was necessary to become “a writer.” By dedicating the time, it taught me about the process, what worked for me, the importance of making the time, and how to develop successful freelance habits. It also taught me how to recognize what was good, what wasn’t and how to improve that ratio over time in whatever writing endeavors I sought out.
5. Be authentic and deliberate — not full of it
If there’s one thing social media has done, it’s created an appetite for authenticity and transparency. When it comes to connecting with actual people (and not just SEO bots), audiences are drawn to things that resonate as true. And repelled by things that aren’t. Those things have a way of becoming the white noise of the internet, relinquished to the dustbin of society.
Don’t be that person. Have you ever read something and then wondered aloud what you just read? Welcome to the internet. There’s a lot of fluff and writing for writing’s sake that attempts to say a lot without actually saying anything. Try to avoid that. Nobody has the time for hot air. Whether you’re a writer or a content marketer by trade, you have a responsibility not to take people’s time for granted.
On that note, here’s a litmus test to consider before you hit the ‘publish’ button…
- Is there an audience for what you’ve just written?
- Is it fresh? Or a tale as old as time?
- Is this something you would read if you encountered it?
- Does it resonate as real or come off as disingenuous?
- Are you using the fewest amount of words possible to tell this story? Can you trim any fat?
One final thought on intention. Comedian George Carlin once said the following about blues music: “It’s not enough to know which notes to play, you have to know why they need to be played.”
Same goes for writing. Understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you do, your audience will be appreciative beyond words.
6. Tell stories that hook people
Our culture loves storytelling. We binge TV, obsess over movies and devour content like it’s going out of style. This is what you’re competing against when you put your words together — an onslaught of distractions waiting in the wings. Maybe the biggest reason why you need to hook people immediately: You’re no longer just competing with other words, but things.
Here’s a shortlist of things vying for your audience’s attention at any given time:
- Texts, email, push notifications
- Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and yes, TikTok
- Podcasts, audiobooks, your Spotify playlist
- Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO, Showtime, ESPN
- The 24-hour news cycle
I think you get the point. While you painstakingly craft sentences you deem worthy of people’s time, know that their brain is looking for any reason to jump to something else. So better use your talents to hook people immediately.
On that front, ask yourself these five things about the stories you’re telling:
- Is the topic something relevant for right now, not yesterday’s news?
- Did you use a compelling headline and construct a strong lead?
- Is the content itself engaging? Does your structure mesh with how people read?
- Are you keeping your audience’s attention along the way, or did you lose them at hello?
- Is there an opportunity to use visuals to create a more vivid picture in people’s minds?
Answer these five things honestly and you’ll be well on your way to telling your story.
7. Know the impact of your words
We live in the era of Me Too and heightened sensitivity at every cultural checkpoint. It’s easy to chalk it up to political correctness and then proceed to punch keys (and push buttons) that offend, diminish or cause pain to any specific group or groups. Try not to do that.
More than ever, our society has a low tolerance for words (political or otherwise) that reflect hate and narrow-minded sentiment. Even brands have been called out for poorly worded messages that are out of touch with today’s new societal norms.
Don’t cut others down to boost yourself up. What you write, publish and tweet out into the world speaks volumes. If you do take chances expressing strong opinions with words, choose them carefully. The moment you hit the ‘send,’ ‘publish’ or ‘post,’ your words are out there. If your goal is to educate, that sounds like a noble goal. Just make sure you’ve read what you’ve written once, twice, three times. And through the eyes of every possible audience who might encounter your message.
Your intentions might be pure, but the execution is flawed, casting a shadow on every other word you’ve written. If you do throw shade or degrade, be ready for the consequences. You could be flagged, targeted or trolled. And who needs that.
8. Nourish your writing skills by going on a strict quality control diet
‘The Bachelor’ is one of America’s favorite pastimes because it requires what can only be described as absolutely no thought whatsoever. It’s light, brainless, insignificant. Same could be said for the time we spend swiping through our social media feeds.
It’s okay to indulge in the light stuff, but substance will go a lot further. There are only so many hours in the day. Watch things that feed the writer’s soul, not people who have sold theirs for a little bit of fame. Your next question might be: like what?
Good question. Think about what draws you in. What speaks to you. What content you can’t get enough of. Passion is the backbone of all creative endeavors so seek out that which inspires you and mine it, nurture it and channel it into your own pursuits.
Ask yourself: What makes your heart race? Maybe you like dark, so see Oscar-winner ‘Parasite’, which nailed a thrilling take on the class struggle. Or drama and a nice ugly cry, so you watch ‘This is Us.’ Or maybe a hilarious swim in ‘Schitt’s Creek.’
Maybe it’s a podcast that inspires you to think differently about the craft.
Whatever it is, put positive things in and let the passion pour out. Use the brilliance of other writers, across mediums, to influence your talent. To gain inspiration. To define your voice. To remind you that it all starts with the written word.
Many geniuses came before us. And there will be many after. Maybe one can be you.
9. Speaking of resources…
Writing can be a lonely and alienating life. When you spend a large chunk of your time alone in a room with your thoughts, a semi-aloof cat and a Spotify playlist, it’s easy for the voice in your head to scream: “You’re all alone in this world!!!” You are not.
There are all sorts of places you can turn if you want to glean inspiration from those who are going through exactly what you’re going through on a daily — sometimes hourly — basis. Yes, the coffeehouse culture can help cure remote-worker disenchantment, but there are other places where you’re assured to see and/or actually interact with people. These include writers’ groups on Facebook, a MasterClass on writing, online courses on Coursera, even annual writing retreats. Some of the latter tend to be pricier, but can put you in the presence of likeminded people looking to leverage inspiration from the group.
Don’t work in a bubble. Find support and use it. There are also books you can read that remind you what’s necessary to fuel the pursuit. Here are three excellent ones I’ve read over the years on writing (and the written word) that have kept me motivated:
These books can help you sharpen your writing skills…
- ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life‘ by Anne Lamott: An all-time classic and one of the better writing books you’ll ever encounter given how simple the advice is, how relatable and ultimately, how funny.
- ‘An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake‘ by Srinivas Rao: A new(ish) book about creative pursuits and not taking your audience for granted, from the co-founder of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast.
- ‘Brain Droppings‘ by George Carlin: The late comedian had a way with words and put them on display in this hilarious book, pointing the finger at us for our use of language as a culture, the idiosyncrasies, and hypocrisies. Vastly amusing.
10. A quick and final word on grammar…
When it comes to the power of the written word, there’s no greater turnoff than a typo or embarrassing grammatical mistake. It could be the difference between you getting taken seriously and you getting seriously dismissed as you look to land new clients.
That said, if you’re pitching yourself as writer, you’ll want to pay extra attention to detail and sometimes sweat the small stuff.
Simple test. Take these two sentences below as an example and tell me which one will hold more weight with a potential client — and which one will cast doubt on its author and call into question their ability to catch mistakes:
“Thank you for considering my proposal. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you for considering my proposal. If you have any questions, please do nto hesitate to ask.”
Example B — as in be wary of mutilating the English language.
Example B demonstrates a simple transposition mistake, but it says a lot. Treat quality control like your flesh and blood. Over-reliance on spell checkers or overuse of voice-to-text has become provide fertile ground for uncharacteristic mistakes.
Space limitations, texting and social media have seemingly made it okay to misspell a word here and there. Not to mention abbreviating things that make us look cute or quick, such as turning “you are” into “u r.” That’s fine for a harmless text exchange, but beware: Your brain is being rewired to accept mediocrity. Stay in tip-top, Rocky-caliber shape when it comes to the style in which you write. Speaking of style, The Elements of Style is a great resource to stay in touch with writing’s best practices.
As the old adage often attributed to Ernest Hemingway goes: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” As someone looking to improve their writing skills, you can’t look over your work enough. To fix the clumsy. To refine the brilliant. To say it better.
As a writer, your first task is to get your ideas out on the page. But, as a writer, your next task is to make sure you’re saying it in the best possible way, without mincing words or asking too much of your audience. Being your own best editor is the only way to ensure the greatest level of quality control in your own work — and to command the greatest respect from the reader.
Respect the craft, and your audience will respect you. Now, what do you think, shall we all get to it?
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