Confession: I have a pipe dream of becoming the next JK Rowling. To be able to use words to create a whole new world (shining, shimmering, splendid!) in which millions of people find comfort, inspiration, and sheer happiness would be my utopia. One thing is clear, though: If I want to reach this (very lofty) goal, I need to continue to work on my craft.
Even if your life aspirations are nowhere near mine, writing is still a skill you should hone. And it’s not just for content managers, authors, editors, and the like. As Jocelyn K. Glei, a founder of 99U, says, “Today, writing well is more important than ever. Far from being the province of a select few as it was in Hemingway’s day, writing is a daily occupation for all of us—in email, on blogs, and through social media. It is also a primary means for documenting, communicating, and refining our ideas.”
So, when it comes to doing it well, these 27 tips can help.
1. Determine Your Purpose
What are you trying to communicate? What’s the message you’re trying to send? Driving the car is a heck of a lot easier if you know your destination.
2. Identify Your Audience
Who is this directed at? Who are you talking to? For instance, job search advice for a recent college grad tends to be much different than for a seasoned manager.
3. Make an Outline
You won’t make a cross-country road trip without stopping, right? Instead, you’ll choose towns to stop in along the way so you can grab a bite to eat and some shuteye.
In writing, those “stops” are key points you want to make in order to make it to your final destination—in order to effectively communicate your purpose. Make a list of anything you believe will help you connect with the reader.
4. Watch Your Verb Tense
“She went to the store last week and buys two peaches.” Wait, what?
Shifting your tense, unless intended, will create a tangled web and confuse the person on the other end.
5. Be Consistent in Your Style
Create your own style guide and stick to it. You’ll seem more legitimate if you do.
“To play the piano well, he or she must be willing to take time out of their day to practice.”
There’s a consistent debate on which of these is “right.” But here’s the ultimate rule: Choose one, and only one. So, either: “They must be willing to take time out of their day,” or “He or she must be willing to take time out of his or her day.”
6. Utilize (or Use) Synonyms
Pick which sentence you like better.
“The student asked the teacher if the student could work with another student on the student project.”
“The student asked the teacher if he could work with a classmate to complete the annual project.”
The main difference: The first has “student” four times. The second only has it once. Exercise variety, even if you have to google a thesaurus to do so.
7. Don’t Overcomplicate Things
With that being said, you still want your reader to be able to understand you.
This’ll be much harder to do if he has to stop and consult Merriam-Webster every other sentence to decipher super fancy words. No need to be a sesquipedalian just because, ya know?
8. Remove Anything and Everything That Isn’t Necessary
We have a tendency to fill our space with a lot of, well, nada. (Maybe because we always had to hit a certain page limit throughout our schooling.) This just makes things cloudy, though.
“He huffed and puffed and blew down the lilac purple front door.”
It doesn’t matter what color the door is. What does matter is that he blew it down and is an immediate threat.
9. Choose Active Instead of Passive Voice
Use strong language—it creates a stronger piece.
“Henry made the cake,” rather than, “The cake was made by Henry.”
10. Write Like You Speak
Imagine you’re telling your story to a friend. You could even pretend you’re sending it to her via email. The key is to not sound like a robot. Why? Well, as Lisa B. Marshall of Quick and Dirty Tips explains, “Because it’s easier, much easier, to understand simple, conversational messages.” You can make it more “professional” during the editing process if you need to.
11. Don’t Try to Make Up New Clichés
That’s just how the brownie crumbles. No, actually it’s not. That’s how the cookie crumbles.
Clichés are clichés for a reason—Sometimes, they’re just the best way to say something, and it’s OK to use them when it makes sense. But don’t try to alter one to better fit your needs—Use the original or don’t use it at all. As Regina George said, “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen.”
12. Use Analogies
Metaphors and similes are a great way paint a clearer picture. “Analogies help you explain subtle or complex ideas by reference to concepts the reader already understands,” shares Glen Long of SmartBlogger.
“They allow you to establish such ideas without much of the intellectual scaffolding required to build them from scratch.”
13. Focus on What You’re Writing—Only
It’s difficult to put together a coherent thought (let alone several) when you’re multitasking. Go into full screen mode, exit the internet—whatever it takes for the blank page in front of you to be the only thing.
14. Back Up What You’re Saying
You can make your words more powerful by backing up any claims with quotes from experts, science, or even other articles from well-known publications addressing the same point you’re trying to make.
15. But Do Your Research Later
While enhancing your piece better is great, don’t interrupt your flow to do so. While working on your first draft, input something like, “[Insert quote here],” that you can follow up on. (Just remember, if you can’t find the quote or fact to make your claim, don’t try to squeeze one in. You might have to change your argument.)
16. Accept That Your Initial Draft Probably Won’t Be Your Last
Unless you’re really (really) lucky, you won’t get it all right on the first try. Not only is that OK, but it’s normal. Don’t let the fear of imperfection leave you with an empty doc.
17. Edit Your Own Work
Being able to revise your own stuff is an invaluable skill, even if you also have an editor (or a team of them!). Not only will it help you recognize common mistakes, but it’s also a good way to ensure you expressed everything you wanted to. To help you get started here are a few suggestions , as well as a guide to catching more typos.
18. But Don’t Edit as You Go
Stop debating over word choice and correcting every spelling and grammar error. It’s tempting, I know—but remember: The most important thing is to get your ideas down. Everything else can happen later.
19. Take a Step Back
Start the editing process with a (relatively) blank slate. Switch gears completely—go for a jog, make lunch, answer some emails—and then come back to it when your mind is a little clearer.
20. Read it Out Loud
Sometimes, it’s only in hearing what you’ve put onto paper that you can identify the mistakes (or clunky transitions) and correct them.
21. Revisit Your Desired Audience and Purpose
Ask yourself: “If I were [intended audience], would this make sense? Would it resonate with me?” And, “Is [intended message] clear, here?” Make sure everything aligns with who you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to say—if it doesn’t, either cut it or adjust it.
22. Ask Someone to Review It
Outside perspectives can help you see things you wouldn’t because you’re so deeply involved. Just make sure you’re not running it by someone who always tells you exactly what you want to hear.
23. Don’t Rely Solely on Spell Check or Grammar Browser Plug-ins
It’s a nice safety net, but it’s not your first line of defense—you are.
24. Go Back to the Basics
Proper punctuation is hugely important, so it never hurts to revisit what you learned in elementary school long ago. Muse writer Caroline Liu recommends Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. But if you don’t feel like reading a book, you can always try my old school go-to. And, if you want the advice to come straight to you, try following Grammar Girl on Facebook—tips will be in your face.
25. Read More
Mike Hanski, a contributor to The Huffington Post, says it best: “Can you imagine a musician who does not listen to music himself? The same question can be asked about writing. Every author writes for readers; no grammar rules and writing techniques will help you understand your reader if you do not read yourself.”
26. Always Have a Notebook (or at Least a Pen)
Ideas can come at the weirdest times. Wouldn’t you hate to have a great one but have nowhere to record it? If an app on your phone works best for you, that’s fine, too. What if JK Rowling didn’t have that napkin on the train? It’ll also help for the next and final tip.
27. Write More
An Olympic gymnast doesn’t do flips on the balance beam on competition day only. She spends hours on that thing, and her body starts to remember exactly what it has to do to perfect the routine (and make her a champion).
The same goes for your writing. You must create ugly, awkward sentences and articles that, well, flop. Because in doing this, you’ll learn your voice and further develop your skill. You may not ever be the next JK, but you definitely won’t be if you only work on this skill when it’s game time.
Listen—You don’t need to knock Shakespeare’s socks off. But developing this talent as much as you can really only has benefits, no matter what field you’re in.
Photo of person writing courtesy of JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images.