Writing well is a vital skill everyone should possess, including you, no matter whether you work in an office, a lab, or raise kittens (lucky you). At some point, you are going to have to communicate in writing, and you need to know how to do that clearly.
The starting point
If you are looking for tips on improving your writing, the assumption is that you already know how to write well enough to be understood. If you cannot write, your first stop absolutely must be an entry-level course in grammar. But let’s assume you understand writing and think you’re “pretty good.” The idea is to go from “pretty good” to “outstanding.” There are literally dozens of tips out there on how to learn to write better, but let’s look at just three.
1. Review the basics
There is no way around this; you must know how to spell and punctuate correctly, how to use tenses, how to construct sentences so they make sense, and so on. You must have a wide vocabulary, so you use the correct terminology. Although “The Rules” seem tedious and uninteresting, they exist for a reason: to make sure you write clearly so that everyone can understand your message and will not misinterpret it.
If you are unsure of your basic grammar skills, there are numerous lessons available on YouTube, such as “Basic English Grammar Lessons 101: Rules for Beginners” that will help you brush up. If you prefer, you might be able to find a course at a local community college that will give you a chance to go over the basics.
“The Rules” can also be found in traditional texts such as the classic Elements of Style, written by William Stunk and E.B. White. Elements of Style has been in print since 1920 and is still considered essential.
Do NOT skip over this step if you don’t know basic writing concepts. You will find yourself frustrated and overwhelmed without this grounding. No, I’m afraid there really are no shortcuts: Learn “The Rules.”
Read, read, read. Writers tend to be voracious readers, devouring fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poetry—anything and everything. Reading widely gives you a feeling for how published authors do their work.
Enjoy sampling a variety of works, but make sure to read material in your own field or the field you hope to enter. If you want to write book reviews, read book reviews; if you want to write novels, read novels. Look at the way the author has structured the work, how many chapters there are, how many pages make up a chapter, and how many words are on a typical page. There are standards for all kinds of writing, and you need to know them before you query an agent. For instance, the average “cozy mystery” runs between 70,000 and 85,000 words, while a work of historical fiction could be 120,000 words long.
There is a saying that writing is rewriting; and another saying that all first drafts suck. Both are true. The author who can dash off a first draft that is so good it does not need to be edited is as rare as a Phoenix bird, although Stephen King makes this claim. Since you are not Stephen King, you need to learn to edit your work.
There are several techniques for doing this, but they all start from the same place. Once you’ve finished writing, go over it and pick up any obvious errors, then put it away. Let it sit for several hours, a day, or as much time as you can, and then pull it out and look at it again. You’re going to see a lot of errors you missed the first time around. Start by correcting the easiest mistakes, such as missing commas or misspelled words, and then work up to more complex problems, such as rewriting sentences or paragraphs, or moving sections around. If you start small, you’re likely to have more energy to tackle more difficult issues.
Another tip is to read the piece aloud. You may feel silly and scare the cats, but you’re likely to hear a mistake even if you’ve missed seeing it several times. A trick screenwriters use is to walk as you read aloud. You’ll find yourself unconsciously slowing down or speeding up, which will enable you to recognize the rhythms you’ve created. Short sentences create a feeling of excitement, while longer sentences feel relaxed and languid. If you’re describing a fight, you want the excitement of the former, and reading aloud will help you find the pace.
Finally, writing is one of the most difficult jobs on the planet, but one of the most rewarding. If you brush up on the basics, you’ll improve your skills and make the process far more enjoyable for both yourself and your readers.
If you have good writing skills and want to put them to use, we’d like to hear from you. Contact Words of Worth and join our team today.