Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On writing better

Whether you're writing executive briefs or emails, you probably write more in a day than you realize. Even if you're comfortable writing the daily stuff, most people can get overwhelmed and intimidated by larger writing assignments or the thought of writing something for fun.

Learning to write well doesn't happen overnight, but the steps to get there aren't that difficult. Here are a few easy ways to get on the path to better writing.

Read good writing
The thing I enjoy most about reading is immersing myself in good writing, whether in books, magazines or online publications. When you're familiar with what good writing sounds and looks like, you'll be able to recognize it and practice it yourself. In the same vein, reading crap all day long can neutralize your ability to recognize bad writing and fix it. Junk in, junk out.

Write often
Practice makes perfect. The more you write, though, the more comfortable you will be with writing. Plus, getting words down on paper (or on the screen) gives you a great starting point for editing. It sounds so easy, but can be difficult to practice. Play around with different formats. I'm usually busy with technical proposals, marketing copy, reported stories or blog posts, but I've also dabbled in essays and fiction (very light dabbling) and want to try other types of writing as well.

Share it with others
Get a second or third opinion to see how effective your writing is. Do you have a weird habit or resort to a single type of sentence structure? Getting some outside feedback can be great for developing your voice. Even a simple business email can benefit from a quick review—how is your tone coming across? Find a friend or two you trust, and give them some context for why you're writing to help them get into the right frame of mind.

Play editor
Here's a fun experiment: take a piece from a magazine or website and look at it through an editor's lens. How would you restructure or reword the piece? Is there a better way to get the point across? Think about the things you like and things you don't like about the piece, and then experiment with applying that to your own writing. By editing other people's work for a living, I pick up on common pitfalls and personal preferences, which often come to mind when I'm writing my own stuff.

Stay humble
Writing is not one of those skills you "master" and then leave alone like building the perfect ship-in-a-bottle. That mindset will ruin your writing—in my experience those who are cocky about their writing ability are also in dire need of a good editor (not to be confused with a confident or self-assured writer). Every new piece is a blank slate, and it doesn't care how many awards or A+s your last piece accumulated, if you don't work at the one, it will still be crap.

What do you write? How do you stay sharp?


  1. Great tips. I feel like it's important to stay on top of practicing because while I write corporate stuff often, I don't always write scripts often. It translates pretty well but having someone else's input always makes it better.

  2. I have a day job as an editor, and I see a lot of bad writing. I sometimes feel like my authors write too quickly and carelessly because they know I'll come behind them and clean it up.

    On my blog, I purposely write in a much more casual and loose style than what I'm permitted to do at work. I like the freedom of making my own style guide rather than following the grammar rules in my company's style guide.

    I agree with your tip about reading good writing. It does help me improve my own writing.

  3. Great post, Angeline! The "be prolific" tip is so true. I've noticed a significant improvement in my ability to generate and flesh out ideas. I've also noticed that sometimes you just have to get the "bad" out of your system! I've got some unpublished blog posts that probably just served to let me have a bad writing day :)

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