You’ve probably heard steps one and two before, but the others might surprise you.
It matters for your career. Even if you’re not a journalist or J.K. Rowling, being able to communicate clearly will determine how people see you.
Writing matters for your life. Futuristic visions from the early days of computing imagined a world without text, where everyone had video calls. Instead, we got text messaging and emailing. Poor writing skills make it harder to be seen and heard.
Finally writing makes you smarter. Our working memories are incredibly limited. Writing opens a canvas that can allow you to form more complex thoughts, allowing you to understand harder ideas and solve tougher problems.
Why Learning to Write Can Be Hard
Unfortunately, learning to write isn’t easy.
Human beings acquire spoken language instinctively. Children isolated from a language of adults, will invent their own. New languages emerge afresh when groups of non-native speakers collide.
Writing and reading, on the other hand, isn’t so automatic. Writing itself is only a few millennia old, compared to the millions of years our species has stood on this planet. Until the last hundred years or so, illiteracy the norm. While learning to speak may be nearly guaranteed, learning to write well is not.
For many, you’ll want to write in a language other than the one you grew up speaking. This magnifies the difficulties by adding fluency to the requirements to write well.
How to Become a Better Writer
Luckily, there is also hope. Even if you’re not the best writer now, you can improve your writing skill over time.
To help with that, I’d like to outline five key steps you can take to improve your writing.
Step One: Write a Lot
I believe everyone should have a blog. Writing is a skill that improves with practice. Having a blog allows you to assemble your thoughts, ideas and practice the ever-important craft of writing.
Needing to write, particularly for an imagined audience, forces you to get better at it. If you write infrequently, you’ll struggle to improve. If you write a lot, you’ll naturally get better.
I don’t consider myself a fantastic writer, but whatever skill I have picked up, it’s because I’ve spent years writing every single week right here on this blog. Thousands of articles show that, in the beginning, I was a lot worse at communicating my thoughts and ideas. Patience and practice can eventually make anyone a decent writer.
Step Two: Read a Lot
Read more books. Except, now that you’re writing a lot, notice how the writers you admire manage to hook, persuade, entice and explain things to you.
Part of the benefit will come simply from osmosis. As you read more, you start to imitate the styles of those you admire. Maybe it’s their pithy prose, their excellent research or vivid analogies that convince you to keep reading? Maybe you can copy some of their tricks?
The other benefit is that you can start to dissect how they achieve their goals. You might even be surprised that an author you thought wrote a certain way actually doesn’t.
Something like this happened to me when I started writing my latest book. I went back to books I admired, I thought, for their detailed research. I was surprised to find very few citations per chapter for many of those books. How then, had I been so convinced that the author was speaking about facts instead of just his opinion?
Reading a lot can help you pinpoint what makes good writing work.
Step Three: Edit a Lot
Good writing is good editing. This is an adage that comes from the days when editing required retyping pages and correctional fluid. Now you can just hit backspace.
There are many approaches to editing, but the one that has worked best for me involves writing in as few sittings as possible, putting the writing aside for a few days, and then looking at it again with fresh eyes.
Writing in a single burst helps keep you focused. You won’t get it right the first time, but you’re more likely to write with a good flow that a reader can easily follow.
Editing in a separate sitting often helps because you’ll have forgotten much of what you wrote down. Now you’re approaching your writing the way a reader would. From there, you can eliminate the excesses of the previous day’s flow of words.
Step Four: Have Something to Say
Writing is a vehicle. While there are writers who can dazzle so much with their word choice, that we don’t care much what they say, those are the extreme minority. For almost all of us, we write to make a point. Therefore, it’s helpful to have one.
Seek out interesting experiences. Do research to find the facts. Gather stories you can weave into your message. Try to stitch together ideas others will find useful, intriguing or imaginative.
Don’t confuse having something to say with being an authority on saying it. If you have authority, whether that’s a PhD, a million-dollar company or a lifetime of gritty, personal experience, that’s great.
But if you don’t, it’s fine to admit that and keep writing anyways. Nobody gave me permission to write this. You don’t need it either.
Step Five: Get Feedback
Once you’ve done all that, the best thing you can do to improve your writing is to get feedback on it.
In the beginning, this can be as simple as asking friends to review your writing. They don’t need to be writers, just people who can read. Do they get bored? Did they understand your point, or was it lost on them?
Later, you’ll benefit more from professional feedback. Trying to write for local papers, newsletters or small magazines can put you in front of editors who can offer stronger advice. I learned a lot from early writing gigs for other websites, where my work would face higher scrutiny.
To get really good, you can work your way up to even more prestigious and exclusive publications. Working with serious editors for major publications puts even stronger demands on your researching, storytelling and writing abilities.
Start Writing More Today
Above all, however, is the first step: write more. If you recoil at putting your writing out there, where others might criticize it, or worse, if you avoid writing altogether because you don’t like your work, you’ll never improve.
If you’re not doing so already, try setting up the habit of writing every day. Even just one hundred words a day can go a long way to improving how you write.