I wholeheartedly believe that everyone, not just published or aspiring authors, can benefit from taking the time to work on their writing skills.
There are countless examples of when good written communication can work in your favour. Think networking, assembling a resume, starting a blog. Think writing better essays and improving your grades. The world is both fast-paced and hungry for information, which means an ability to deliver a persuasive, crisp message gives you an advantage in the pursuit of your goals.
Your target audience is presented with nothing other than the result of your labour. For example, let’s say you’re writing a paper for school. Coming up with an original thesis, regardless of its importance, is just step one of many. Your brilliant ideas will be ‘lost in translation’ unless you develop the ability to materialise them through words with a sense of structure and coherence. Likewise, a groundbreaking business may struggle to lure in customers in the absence of verbal persuasion.
The older I get, the more fascinated I become with the written word. Language can be revolutionary. And while not every written piece strives to be a world-changer, we strive to impact something whenever we write – your own professional/academic development, the readers of your blog – or spread a message you think needs to be heard. People whose income depends on the quality of their writing must be more rigorous than others, of course, but for the reasons described above, we can all capitalise on better written communication skills.
Improving your writing does not have to be an arduous, time-consuming battle and will feel easier once you accept that significant changes will not happen overnight. A combination of habit and patience is required. The advice of ‘read and write as much as possible to master the craft yourself’ is hard to argue with because you can’t improve without knowing what good writing looks like in practice. Read quality works within your niche and analyse what sets them apart. Challenge yourself in terms of daily word count and content. However, these core practices can be substantiated with other habits that are easy to implement into your daily routine as a means of boosting your competence in the written word.
Note down new vocabulary and phrases
This is everyone’s favourite activity in primary school for sure(I could hardly contain my pride after using ‘apprehensive’ for the first time), hence we should make the effort to retain the habit into adulthood. While I’m not in favour of replacing familiar words with eighteenth-century philosophical jargon, professionalising your vocabulary is how greater vivacity and power can be achieved in your writing. So, if sophisticated and obscure are not synonymous as far as vocabulary is concerned, how should we define the former? I think there are three main components:
- Precision. i.e., your word choice should be tailored to its subject matter and free from ambiguities. Don’t leave your reader scrambling to fill in the gaps.
- Concision. Good vocabulary should eliminate redundancies and awkward phrasing, allowing you to express the same idea in fewer words.
- Originality. Clichés will automatically weaken your point and leave the reader skimming instead of pausing to think about the underlying ideas.
As an added bonus, building up your inner dictionary will expand your creativity. New words open new lines of thinking, allowing you to make connections and look at issues from a different perspective. For this reason, whenever you come across an interesting word, phrase, connective, get in the habit of writing it down. Nearby, keep a list of synonyms for familiar words: sometimes, we know a word and what it means, and in reaching for a blander alternative, we need a reminder of all the other possibilities on hand to avoid repetition.
A quick explanation for those who are unfamiliar with free-writing: essentially, it’s the practice of writing non-stop for a certain period of time without judging the end result. This technique can remedy writers block by removing the pressure to produce something coherent and suitable for public consumption. I use it to understand the ideas bubbling away in my subconscious. The result of free-writing is unusable as a whole, but may contain engaging fragments, begging to be explored and understood at a greater depth.
If you are someone who wants to write more and develop their skills through the ‘practice makes perfect principle’, but simply doesn’t know what to write about, I would recommend scheduling in a healthy dose of free-writing. You’ll feel more at ease with pen (or keyboard) in hand, reinforcing your ability to streamline thoughts into words when the need arises to do so for a project. Start by setting a timer to five minutes, note down a prompt and see where it takes you until the time is up – only rule is that you can’t stop and go back to correct something!
Switch up what you read (and write it down!)
Of course, you must read within your subject (whether that’s a specific fiction genre, an academic discipline or blogging niche) to comprehend how its language works, how ideas are communicated. However, after stepping into unfamiliar territory, you can return to your comfort zone with a hint of originality and dynamism. For example, reading newspaper columns as a fiction writer, which typically face stricter limits, will teach you to say more in fewer words. Likewise, by reading fiction, a student can liven up their essays, create better flow and add personality. Of course, there are formal restraints to which they must adhere and will ultimately be judged on the basis of scholarly competence. But professional essay and nonfiction writers, I’ve notices, are not afraid to add a hint of flourish and lyricism to their work.
If you’re a content creator, there’s an additional benefit in store for you – fresh ideas are often found in the most unexpected places. When your run dry, expand your horizons and read something unfamiliar. The more far removed from your comfort zone, the better. Chances are, you will find snippets of inspiration that can be tailored to fit your niche and writing style, whether single sentences or questions asked by the author. The act of reading quality works in itself makes you eager to sit down and see how far you can push your own language!
After reading something, be sure to track the title and a few comments/opinions to make sure each book or publication is a valuable investment of your time.
Take editing just as seriously
Editing is vital to the improvement of not just individual pieces, but your writing skills in their entirety. The ‘awful first draft’ shifts your thoughts from brain to paper. The editing process, however, targets everything from trivial mistakes to the overall structure and makes those thoughts refined, coherent, readable. Writers all have their ‘signature’ mistakes, with which you’ll become by editing your own work and lower the chances of repeating them in future first drafts.
I will, of course, issue the usual word of warning: do not go back and edit before the first draft is complete. Accept that, regardless of whether you agonise over the passive voice and spend five minutes on each sentence or not, you’ll never be satisfied with the first draft. The first draft is a stream of consciousness, a structure with gaps to be filled throughout the editing process, to be disassembled and put together in different ways. This is why my final drafts often look nothing like what I started with.
Once past the first draft stage, return to the first sentence and revise to your heart’s content (within reason, of course – after a certain point, both logic and deadlines demand a piece be declared complete). Revisit and strengthen old blog posts. Offering help to a friend, if you want to push your editing habit further, will benefit both parties in equal amounts. While your friend receives a free editing service, you’ll develop an eye for weaknesses and mistakes, learning how to tighten up your own writing in a similar manner.n
(Question for readers: would you be interested in a blog post on my editing process/general editing tips and strategies?)
Practice explaining things as much as possible
We find our friends and family easy to understand because we know these people on a deeper level. We finish our friends’ sentences when they stammer and can keep them engaged when telling a story through a pre-established emotional connection. Writing, however, requires you explain often far more complex ideas to a stranger. Whether the functioning of a magical world, or a controversial argument, or reasons for why your product trumps alternatives on the market, writing is explanation, and leaves little room for obscurity.
For this reason, get into the habit of explaining things to others as often as possible. Conversation, which takes place outside the hours you spend writing, provides an opportunity to improve your written as well as verbal communication skills. The former often fairs simpler than the latter. When studying for exams, your aptitude in teaching someone else determines the extent of your understanding of a topic: if you can outline your ideas to other people through word of mouth, writing them down should feel easy in comparison. In conversation with friends and family, practice telling stories and explaining concepts/ideas you find interesting, taking a logical approach as you would in writing. Join debating societies or visit public lectures, which feature people with expertise in clarifying their thoughts for others to understand and engage with.
In the end, how much we invest in a craft will determine the the success of our labour. Practice is the best way to build competence and a voice which runs like a thread through the pieces in which you are the narrator. Practice whenever possible, immerse yourself in the works of your role models, and supplement your regular writing habit with tactics such as the ones listed above. Most importantly, do not get discouraged: what characterises ‘good’ writing is neither strictly objective, nor attainable through quick fix solutions!
Let me know in the comments: what strategies do you implement to better your writing? What are your writing goals for the upcoming month?