How to Improve Your Writing

I like Ali Hale. She’s perky, she’s a go-getter, and she’s all over the place in the blogosphere writing some great advice. It never really occurred to me that I could ask her for a guest post instead of waiting for her to ask me. So when it hit me, I did – and here’s her post on how to be a better writer – fast. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago, my mother read and enjoyed a guest blog post of mine – The Missing Half of Productivity Advice: Why Women Need to Get Involved. She told me that my writing style had really improved over the past couple of years.

That surprised me.

It shouldn’t have surprise me at all, really – I’ve been writing six to ten blog posts a week, every week, for at least eighteen months. And I’ve been soaking up advice from sites like Copyblogger and Men with Pens as well as material from some other excellent writers in the blogosphere.

The problem was that I couldn’t see how I’d improved.

The day-to-day changes were so small that I never noticed the point where posts began to flow more easily for me, where I didn’t need spend so long editing, where I just “knew” how to structure a piece without having to think it through, step by step.

Something similar has happened with my fiction writing. When I started freelancing full time, I also started a Masters degree in Creative Writing. I’m working on a novel, and the drafting and redrafting process means frequently revisiting material I wrote upwards of twelve months ago.

Every time I go back to revise, I realize that my writing has become stronger in the interim.

There are no clear measures of writing ability. Once you’re out of school, you don’t get graded. You can’t even assume that your writing gets steadily and constantly better over time. No one assigns you experience points or notes when you’ve leveled up.

Most writers aren’t brimming over with confidence, either. We stare at blank screens. We chew pencils. We tap out words and delete them. Sometimes, we wonder what the point is.

Are we any good? Are we getting better? How can we find out?

Regardless of what field you write for, dig out some of your earliest work. It might be the very first blog you began years ago (read only by your best mate and your dad) or the novel you wrote as a teen (still hidden in the bottom of the wardrobe).

A word of warning: It’s probably going to be a bit painful.

You’re going to look at this old work with new eyes. You’ll see something that you thought was perfectly good (or at least pretty much okay) way back then. But everything you’d do differently today is going to leap out at you.

That can be hard to take, but it’s a good thing. It’s how you can see – and know – that you’ve improved.

If you’ve been writing within the same area for a while (copywriting, or blogging, or fiction, maybe) try comparing an older piece you wrote with something new written recently. Spot the differences? You might want to go through the older piece thoroughly to see exactly where you’ve improved.

  • Are you better at pacing and structure?
  • Has your vocabulary grown?
  • Is your voice stronger?
  • Has your style become more confident?
  • Are you avoiding mistakes you made in the past?
  • Have you mastered strong beginnings or endings?

None of us are perfect – or even much good – when we begin.

Charlie Gilkey has a great post showing how various bloggers have developed and honed their writing style over the years: Becoming Yourself and Growing Your Blog.

Let’s face it, you’re always going to be learning, just by being engaged with words. And each year, you’ll be able to look back on your writing and see how you’ve improved.

How to Improve Faster

Want to speed up? There are plenty of ways to take your writing further, faster. Here are the methods that have worked for me (and for a lot of other great writers I know):

Write As Regularly as Possible

Although “write every day” might not be practical for you, the more regularly and consistently you write, the faster you’ll improve. Plus, stamina, and self-discipline and getting into the flow are all aspects of writing which you can get better at … with a bit of practice.

If you let weeks slip by without writing or without working on that one project that really interests you, find half a day each week when you can really dig into your writing.

This is where bloggers get a head start: if you have a blog, you have a good reason to put fingers to keyboard on a regular basis. Perhaps you have all of three readers right now – but this means it’s a great time to practice and hone your skills before you have thousands of fans hanging on your every word.

Focus on One Genre of Writing

(I mean “genre” in the very broad sense – fiction, poetry, script writing, blogging, autobiography – rather than “genre” as in “genre fiction”.)

You might want to try out a bunch of different types of writing when you’re just getting started – but as you move forwards, you’ll want to specialize. This isn’t just because specialization increases your chances of making a living from your writing – it’s also because it’s easier to improve when you focus on mastering one form.

I spent over a year writing short stories and nothing else. By the time I moved on, I’d had a couple of small competition wins and a few short listings. I still remember how much I struggled with the first story I wrote that year and how long I spent writing it – but if I’d just given up, I’d have missed out on a lot of learning.

Of course, many writing lessons apply across multiple genres. Learning to craft a compelling opening to a blog post might teach you something about the first few pages of your novel. And writing should be about play and experimentation, not about rigid rules.

You don’t have to strictly limit yourself to one area of writing – but it does help to have a clear focus.

Read Great Writing

One of the best ways to learn to write is by studying what others have written. Almost without exception, successful writers are also keen readers – and almost any writing teacher will advise you to read, a lot. Find writers that you love to read, and learn from what they do.

For example, one of my favorite blogs is Liz Styles’ Damomma – I’ve been reading her blog for five years, despite having no kids and no plans to have kids any time soon. I stick around because she’s such a brilliant writer. She paints pictures with words and tells gripping stories about her family’s life.

When you come across a short story that leaves you stunned or a blog post which grips your attention from start to finish, or a poem that haunts you for days, take some time to re-read it as a writer. Figure out what it is the author is doing. Think about the structure, the voice and style of the piece, the ordering of elements, and the language used.

You’ll almost always learn something that you can apply to your own work.

The Ten-Minute Challenge:

Spend just ten minutes on your own growth as a writer today, and try these tricks:

1. Dig out one of your earliest blog posts or a short story you wrote back in college, or the first poem you finished as a teenager. Read it. Don’t agonize over how bad it is – celebrate the fact that you’ve improved enough that you can see the imperfections now.

2. Find a magazine article, blog post or short story that really works. Think about why. (The powerful voice? A clever structure? An intriguing hook?) If you have a favorite writer or blogger, think about what attracts you to their work.

And remember – nothing you write is ever wasted, because even if no one ever sees it, even if you trash it the next day, you learnt something as you wrote it.

Post by Agent X

Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.