How to Write Better: 12 Straightforward Techniques to Try Today
Getting the first sentence on paper can be one of the most difficult challenges a writer faces
As a freelancer, you don’t want your work to seem sloppy or poorly edited.
When you blog, you don’t want readers to switch off because you’re far too wordy.
Want the good news? Even if your writing skills aren’t as strong as you’d like, there are plenty of straightforward techniques you can use to improve them.
No matter how much of an expert you are, all writers can stand to pick up a few tips to learn how to write better. The same way a piece of writing is never “done” being edited (there’s always something), the work to improve your skills doesn’t end.
Whether you write articles, blogs, social media copy or research papers, here are 10 techniques to use to help you write anything well.
Here are some suggestions on how to write better.
- Start Small and Build Up: You don’t have to set a Chevrolet on fire or have someone murdered on the first page to get the reader’s attention. We’ve all watched a lifetime’s worth of TV and movies that put big and often violent events into the first five minutes as a hook. The assumption is that we have the attention spans of chimpanzees. But hooks are hard to live up to; you can’t stay at that level. Besides, screen culture does violence better than written culture, so leave the big violence to the movies. It’s better to start with a small mystery and build up to a bigger one. The truth about a situation is always big enough to sustain someone’s attention.
- Start in the Middle: If you don’t know where to start, don’t bother deciding right now. The first line of a book is critical — but there’s no rule that says you have to start there. The first words you write might end up being the middle of Chapter Three. That’s perfectly fine. And as you work forward in the story, you’ll get an idea about how to work backward. Once your characters develop and the plot grows in directions you didn’t expect, you may see the perfect scene to start things off with.
- Write Like It’s Your Job: If you want to get better at something, you have to practice — and writing is no exception! 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.
- 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 is also wondering how 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.
- Commit to a Title Up Front: The title you give a story — whether it ends up being your final title or just a placeholder — is your North Star. If you have a placeholder that doesn’t feel right, you have to ask yourself why it doesn’t feel right. And that too can guide you to where you need to be, because it shows you where you shouldn’t go. So trust your title. If you’re stuck, go back to it. Ask yourself why it’s important. By following what’s important to you, you may just end up with something that will be important to other people. They will see that title and make that subterranean connection. What draws you to the novel is inevitably what draws the reader in. Most of the time we don’t get to choose our own names, but we always choose the names of our stories for a reason.
- Create a Synopsis: When I first started writing, I always wrote a synopsis. It allowed me to work out story problems and emotional beats early, and served as a road map. And, from a practical standpoint, publishers required them. But the synopsis had the added benefit of helping to get those words on the page. There is something psychologically freeing about knowing that the problem you are tackling has already been at least somewhat addressed in an outline.
- Allow Yourself to Make Mistakes: The best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me was “Allow yourself to write badly.” Nothing petrifies a writer more than the pursuit of perfection. You have this idea of a story in your head, glowing and golden and wonderful, and as soon as you try to set it down on the page, it turns into something plodding, gray, and feeble. Disappointment and despair come to sit at your side, shaking their heads at your woeful work. You waste valuable writing time beating yourself up about not producing anything special, so eventually you produce nothing at all.
- Imitate Writers You Admire: 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- Do the Opposite: We all know the piece of writerly advice that tells us we should write the kind of story we love to read. That’s terrific advice. Good luck with that. But if you have bad luck with that, then perhaps you should try this exercise, which I call, right now, for the first time, “Do the Opposite,” in which you write the kind of story that is the exact opposite of the kind of story you hate.
- Eliminate Unnecessary Words: 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.
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.