So, you want to start writing. Maybe the marketing team has recruited you to contribute to the company blog, maybe you’ve decided to establish yourself as a thought leader by publishing on LinkedIn, or maybe this is the first step in a potential career change.
That’s great! In fact, if you’re at all interested in writing, I encourage you to do it. But, I know it’s scary, and if you’re like most people, there’s probably a little voice in your head whispering, “What are you thinking? You’re a marketer / salesperson / event planner / exotic cat trainer! You can’t be a writer. And certainly not a good one.”
From someone who’s been some (not all) of those things: Push that voice aside. Writing, like anything else, is a skill—and the vast majority of people who publish their work weren’t born with an innate gift for penning viral articles or bestsellers. They’ve simply gotten better at it over time.
The best advice I have for improving your writing skills is to do it, often. Start your day with 15 minutes of free writing. Take a class or join a writing group that requires you to submit something regularly. Jot down ideas or quick drafts while you’re waiting in line or on the train. Pick up a book of writing exercises, like The Right to Write or 642 Things to Write About.
And then when you do start to write drafts you’d like to publish someday? Try these little exercises, all of which will help you refine the craft and lead you to be a better writer.
1. Get Really Good at Outlining
I know—this sounds like something your high school English teacher would tell you, and it’s definitely not most writers’ favorite part of the process. But it does help you organize what you want to say, which will make the writing itself much easier (and make your editor very, very happy).
If you need a refresher, this is a great read.
2. Braindump Now, Write Later
Unfortunately, having a stroke of inspiration then sitting down and pouring out pages of brilliant prose is a far cry from reality for most writers, myself included. Unless I’m on a crazy deadline, I schedule two to three sessions to write anything: The first one is for letting the creative juices flow and dumping all of my thoughts down as fast as I can without concern for spelling, grammar, or structure, the second for transforming that nonsense into the English language, and the last for refining and editing.
3. Be an Illustrator
With your words, of course (though if you’re into doodling, that can be a great addition—take a look at Liz Ryan’s work). Whether you’re giving advice in a “7 Tips for…” style listicle or writing about how you got your start in consulting, you’ll make a bigger impact if you add details and examples that bring your words to life.
Here’s an example. Which paints a clearer picture?
Arrogance is a quality that you should avoid in the workplace.
Arrogance. It’s the thing that separates the can-dos from the can-do-way-better-singlehandedly-with-my-eyes-closeds, and it’s the quality that rubs you up the wrong way faster than an amorous Edward Scissorhands.
The latter (from one of my favorite writers, Steve Errey), paints quite the picture, right? Steve is also great at this next tip:
4. Write Like You Speak (and Then Take it Up One Notch)
Stand out from others who are writing on the same topics by putting your personal touch on its style and voice. For many, their written voice is similar to the words they say out loud. (This is a good thing for those of us who haven’t picked up a thesaurus since our SAT prep days.) One of my co-workers “writes” articles on her way to work by using the talk-to-text feature on her phone, but you can achieve the same effect by simply reading your work out loud. If it doesn’t sound like something you’d actually say, change it up.
5. Be Different. Be Valuable. Be Generous.
All of my favorite business writers have this in common: They add something special—something that makes you feel like reading their work was time well spent. Sometimes it’s offering a wildly different take on a subject or an entertaining voice. Sometimes it’s including a list of valuable other resources. Sometimes it’s offering a “bonus tip” in the conclusion (my friend and writer Alex Honeysett often uses this approach).
Whatever you do, it’s always worth asking yourself: How much value is this piece offering to readers? Is there anything I can add that would make this more interesting, helpful, or unique? If so, do it.
6. Change Up Your Words
If you’re crafting an article on say, marketing, you’re probably going to use the word marketing quite a bit. Because it’s the clearest, fastest, and most obvious way to get across what you’re trying to say.
But here’s a little-known secret that’ll take that article from good to great: Avoid that word as much as possible, inserting alternates in its place. Done right, it makes your work sound smoother and more natural without the reader ever knowing why.
Yes, it’s a challenge. But you can do it by playing this game with yourself: Write 300 words on a topic of your choosing, but only use the word or phrase you’re writing about once. The longer you work at this, the easier it’ll get.
7. Cut the Fat
One of the biggest mistakes I see writers make is thinking that the piece they’re working on is the only chance they’ll have to tell the world their thoughts on this matter. Not so! In fact, do it right, and you’ll be writing on this topic for a long, long, time. Whether you’re working on a 500-word article or a 50-page guide, it’s a better product when you’re concise, culling the piece down to what matters most.
To practice this, pretend an editor is making you cut your work down by 25%. What can you omit while still sending the same message? One of my favorite places to start is cliché filler language like, “The truth of the matter is…” or “I’m not going to lie…” And if you’re struggling, try this approach: Look at each sentence. If you can remove one without changing the paragraph’s meaning—do it.
Finally, in your quest to improve your writing skills, don’t be afraid to steal from the greats. No, I’m not advocating plagiarism here—but you can and should learn from writers you love. Save stories, paragraphs, themes, voices, and angles that speak to you, and save them in a sample file you can turn to later for inspiration. Better yet, make note of what draws you in about a piece, then see if you can incorporate it into your next draft.
What are you writing about? Any tips to add to the list? Tweet at me and let me know.