Writing is a funny thing. The vast majority of us are taught how to write. At least we are taught about words and sentence structure and how to bunch those sentences together to create paragraphs which build into larger documents or even books. And yet, most of us, including me would struggle to explain the rules of writing. Who really knows what a split infinitive is? Not me. I know when something isn’t right but I couldn’t always tell you why.
In truth it doesn’t really matter. I am a professional ghostwriter and I have been since 2000. Between 80 plus books and countless blogs and reports, I must have written well in excess of ¾ million words during that time. But beyond school I’m largely self-taught. My degree is in business not English or creative writing.
My point is that anyone can become a better writer. Below are 5 easy ways to improve your skills as a writer.
Writing is like any other skill set, it requires practise. It will come as no surprise therefore that the first easy way to improve your skills as a writer is to write. A writer is only a writer when they write. There really are no shortcuts. Just do it more, and you will get better.
Aim for 15
One of my dearest friends is terrified of writing. She’s done a master’s degree and occasionally writes articles for industry journals. The pain of that experience for her is palpable. After weeks of wrestling and editing and rewriting she will invariably send it to me to check. I always have to read it at least three times to even understand it. My friend can write, she’s a smart woman and more than capable of writing an opinion piece for a magazine but she always overthinks it. She seems to get sucked into the vortex that is ‘industry technobabble’. It’s an easy and common mistake to make.
The second super easy way to improve your writing skills is therefore to imagine your audience is a reasonably intelligent 15-year-old. This can feel odd, especially in business where waffle and the use of big words has been elevated to an art form. But what’s the point if no one can understand it? George Orwell once said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” And frankly if it’s good enough for Orwell, it should be good enough for us!
Whatever you write. Read it out loud. You don’t need an audience but the sound of your own voice will alert you to when your writing is getting a little muddled or the sentences are too long. If you have to read it twice, to understand what you wanted to say, something is wrong. Revise.
The fourth easy way to improve your writing skill is to clearly separate writing from editing. They are two sides of the writing coin. Both are essential for good writing but they are very different and need to be kept apart. Too often people start writing and then start editing in the middle of the writing. They second guess themselves and start to review what they’ve already written. Don’t do it. Instead, focus on getting what you want to say down on paper or on the screen. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation too much – just say what you want to say. Then leave it for a day if you can and come back to it with fresh eyes. Read it out loud and aim for clarity.
Kill your darlings
There is some dispute about who said this first, it was either William Faulkner or Dorothea Brande, both American writers. Whoever said it, it’s gold. That said, this last idea for improving your writing is not actually that easy. It’s very easy to get attached to an idea or turn of phrase. We think it’s genius. Part of the editing process above is to give that genius time to bed in and look at it again in the cold light of day. Is it really that clever? Does it add to the narrative or have you just become enamoured with it? It may be time to kill your darlings. Good writing is as much about cutting back and deciding what not to say, as it is about the initial expression.