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.

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  1. “No one assigns you experience points or notes when you’ve leveled up.” I’m not a gamer, but this was clever. :)

    Years ago when I first started writing, I had a hard time knowing what to write or even how to portray that writing on paper with my voice. I was afraid of what other people would think (even in my personal, triple-password protected journal I was destructively careful).

    I finally broke that chain when I forced myself to write down my thoughts: the good, the bad, the ugly, the sinful, the religious, and the downright embarrassing. I realized in that moment that I had a voice aching to break out.

    Like you recommend in your article, I had to experiment with many different genres until I found one that naturally spoke to me–autobiographic writing. Focusing on that genre and reading other people’s amazing writing developed my skills and made it easier to write in other styles as well.

    Great article, thanks for sharing.
    .-= Chris Mower´s last blog ..Are You Prepared for Layoffs? =-.

  2. One of the best decisions I made as a writer, was to become a full-time Copywriter. Why? Because you write every day, whether you like it or not. And often you won’t. You’ll write tired, you’ll write burnt out, you’ll write hungover. Brilliance and creativity will be demanded of you when you’ve got the flu. You’ll be asked to whip up 10 fresh and creative headlines for a product you’re sick to death of — a few minutes before your next meeting.

    It’s all great training.

    And a copywriting position helps you get to your 10,000 hours: The 10,000 hours of writing you need to put in to truly master something. I’ve experienced myself how the closer I get to that 10,000 hours, the better my writing gets.

    Thanks for the article. I’m especially glad you mentioned the importance of reading!
    .-= Carl Thoren´s last blog ..Quick tip for Gmail users =-.

  3. @Carl – That’s so accurate, LOL

    Oh god. We’re all insane to love it, aren’t we.

  4. I think I write fairly well but I suck speed wise. I think the more I write the faster I get though.

  5. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    Ali, I always love when you pop-up on my favorite sites. You always know just how to get to the heart of an issue and then give specific steps anyone can use.

    “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.” Aside from this poignant observation, I love the images in this sentence. I see a mirror picture of myself and every other writer I know, slouching at their messy desk, with a chipped coffee mug stuffed with colorful, chewed, pencils with “no points”–freakin’ brilliant analogy to your message.

    As always thanks.
    PS. I’d love to see some of those short stories sometime.

  6. This is good advice. I’ve tried doing this before and, quite frankly, some of my older blog posts scare me. I don’t know who wrote them and why they thought they had the right to sit before a keyboard and litter the Web with, um, substandard writing. So it’s a good exercise, although a bit painful.

    But the really odd thing, though, is when I go back to older stuff and I wonder who wrote it because, damn, some of it is pretty good. So there’s the potential for pleasant surprises, too.
    .-= Mark Dykeman´s last blog ..The Why Problem =-.

  7. Great post Ali, and so true. I recently looked back at posts I’d written when I was first starting out and they were cringe-worthy. I very seriously debated deleting them. In the end I updated them instead.

    Improving your writing is just like anything else – practice, practice and more practice. There’s no shortcut here, no quick fix, no magic bullet. Just work, hard work and then some more hard work. That’s what separates the wannabe’s from the serious types. The serious one’s are in it for the long haul, and recognise that from the start.

    It’s just not something that the newbies want to hear unfortunately…..
    .-= Melinda | SuperWAHM´s last blog ..The Two Hour Business Plan – special introductory offer =-.

  8. Ali, as always, this is a great post. What else would I expect from one of my favorite blogggers though.

    These are some great points. I find myself not writing as much during some periods – burnout, maybe. One of my goals is still to write something, even if it’s not “post worthy”.
    .-= Todd´s last blog ..Are you ready for a bucket list =-.

  9. Funny you should say this. Just recently I pulled out the manuscript for my unpublished novel, the one that I wrote over a decade ago. I had considered it done and as close to ready for publication as I could get it on my own, but when I started to read it … well, I still think it’s good, I still love the story, but I hadn’t realized how much my writing had improved. Just reading through it and doing some basic, painless tightening, I dropped the word count from 124,000 to 106,000–and that was without breaking a sweat. Obviously my writing has improved a lot in the last ten years, even if I hadn’t realized it!

  10. Great tips and I agree. But as a freelancer, I find it impossible to
    focus on just one genre. Any feedback?

  11. Thanks for the inspiration. I’m new to copywriting and in a dry spell. I’ve been doubting about my skills lately. It’s great to know that I just have to keep going…
    .-= Jan´s last blog ..Tidbits of a Great Copy =-.

  12. @ Carl… Amen to the 10,000 hours. That is such a critical step in the mastery of anything. I wrote a post about it a few months back… I think.

    I find that it’s waaay easier to write every single day than to stop and try to turn the steamboat around after missing a day or two.

    Once you get the momemtum going, then it just becomes part of your routine. Some things you write make you feel like a writer. Some things make you feel like a 3rd grader.

    …but the point is to keep on doing it. Then a few days/months/years later you go back and look at your huge body of work and wonder how you eer got that much accomplished.

    It’s all just one piece at a time and to get your 10,000 hours in as fast as you can in order to earn mastery of the subject.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    .-= Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire´s last blog ..Critical Marketing Tip Leaked By Last Sardines Ever Made =-.

  13. Ali, I have two books still in print, and every few years I have to revise them for new editions. It’s a bit painful to see some of the sentences I wrote, many dating back to the early 90s.

    It’s not that the writing is bad; it’s just a bit pedestrian.

    I’m a much more relaxed writer now.
    .-= John Soares´s last blog ..Four Ways Writing Well Helps Your Freelance Writing Career =-.

  14. “Read great writing.” ITA I’ll bookmark and save so many blog, journal, newspaper articles.. about anything, everything if the writing speaks to me. That’s my 10-minute challenge, I do it every week.
    .-= Davina K. Brewer´s last blog ..Smart Marketing 101: Being helpful wins business =-.

  15. Great post.. Glad I’m not ther only one that can’t see if they writing is getting better. lol

    I look at how my blog is doing, am I getting more comments, interaction from a post, to me that shows me a posts success but not really telling me if my writing has gotten better.

    Reading you post, shows me I am improving, but still need work.
    .-= John Paul Aguiar´s last blog ..My Crazy Simple 7 Step Plan To Promote A New Post =-.

  16. What’s funny is that I see my material, old and new, all over the place. So I’m surfing around the net, land on a great article and…

    “Wow… this is really good. Who wro-… Oh. This is mine?”

    *blink*

    “Oh. Well. What a good writer I am, eh?!”

    Of course, the inverse is also true:

    “What the… this is fucking horrible. This makes no sense at all. Who wro-… Oh. This is mine?”

    *shuffles off with a red face*

    I like it more when the first happens. 😀

  17. Wow, thanks for the comments, all!

    @Chris – Thanks, I love it when my cleverness is duly noted! 😀 And thanks for sharing your story too. I think finding your voice and genre as a writer can take a lot of searching, and a lot of bravery.

    @Carl – “You’ll write hungover.” — I tried that one this morning, gave up swiftly and had a nap. (But don’t do what I do, do what I say…)

    @Tini – I write fast, which is partly to do with my style (fairly conversational) and partly many years of experience! I also touch-type, which means my fingers can keep up with my thoughts…

    @Mary – And I always love seeing your names in the comments! :-) If you’re really keen to read my fiction, the two short stories which won (very small) prizes were published online:
    http://www.writersnews.co.uk/showcase/hale/default.asp
    http://www.writersnews.co.uk/showcase/hale2/default.asp

    Note the VERY outdated bio on the first story (it was only 3 years ago, and yet pretty much all of it has now changed!)

    @Mark – I re-read the novel I wrote when I was 14 a while ago. And found my diary from around then. All you can do is shudder and celebrate the fact that you’ve improved…

    @Melinda – I deleted my first ever blog, wiping all trace from the internet! Yes, new writers are (understandably) not always keen to hear about the years of practice which lie ahead… but, let’s face it, none of us are born able to write.

    @Todd – Aww, thank you! Didn’t even know you hung out over here — the blogosphere is always smaller than I think!

    @–Deb – I’ve got a novel from about 5 years ago which I was sending out to agents. I can now see why it never got anywhere. My writing’s definitely improved since then but (perhaps more crucially) so has my sense of little things like plot, characterisation, pacing, originality…!

    @poch – I’m not exactly the queen of focus myself (I split my time between fiction and non-fiction, which are fairly distinct!) I do try to keep big projects to a minimum: at the moment, a novel and my own blog Aliventures. Every time I’m tempted to start something new, I remind myself that I’d quite like to finish this novel some day…

    @Jan – Yes, please do keep going! I think self-doubt can sometimes be a good sign: the only writers I know who are supremely confident about their own skills are *very* new and (in brutal honesty) not all that good. Being able to see the flaws in your own work is a sign that you’re growing…

    @Joshua – I’ve tried write-every-day (500-1000 words) and write-twice-weekly (2000+ words) routines, and for me, less frequent but longer sessions work best. I think this is very much an individual thing, and I certainly struggle if more than a week goes by without work on a particular project.
    .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..When Public and Private Clash Online =-.

  18. I now write for two blogs and have a weekly column. Because of all this additional responsibility, I’m writing more than ever before. I think it’s doing my writing good. And I’m pleased with the added responsibility, because I wouldn’t be writing as much as I am now if it wasn’t something I had to do.
    .-= Bamboo Forest – PunIntended´s last blog ..7 Beautiful Ways to Tell a Girl You Like Her =-.

  19. It took me so long to understand this. That what I wrote before, no matter how bad it seems, is a journey to somewhere new. A journey to a labor of love, creativity, talent and success. Not appreciating where you came from is like looking at a picture of yourself as a toddler, comparing it to a picture at 21, and complaining you weren’t pretty or sophisticated enough at 2. It’s a process and something to be embraced for the period of time you were living in.

    I also care deeply what my Mom thinks about my work :-) My most treasured compliment is when she tells people, “She paints with words!”
    .-= susan´s last blog ..The Creative Guide to Working with Your Spouse =-.

  20. Solid tips, what I’ve noticed from my first articles and something I still struggle with now, is that I’m too verbose. It’s funny how when you write, you assume people care to read it. When I find an article, if it’s too verbose, I often skim it in a super fast fashion and move on!

  21. I like the way you write…

    Recently I went back and looked at my first fiction novel and almost cried. It wasn’t pretty. I’d let it sit for about 18 months since I last had a look. It was atrocious really. After 50 pages of revision I thought I’d improved it 100%, and there were 200 more pages to go.

    Yesterday I read a poem I’d not looked at in about a decade. There was a whole stanza that didn’t make sense at all. Though I’d read it probably 40 times since I’ve written it, I was able to overlook that part that made zero sense – 40 times.

    We need editors. Someone must look at your work to find the parts that don’t make sense. Grammar, spelling, we have MS Word for that… Common sense – we need someone other than ourselves to spank us when we need it. This poem error was big too – it was throw me across your knee and spank me big.

    I have this idea that those of us that are online a lot – 8-15 hours a day, and interacting socially online and writing books, ebooks, comments, articles, are writing a LOT more than any writers in history used to write in their notebooks or bang out on a typewriter. Why? It’s super easy. I’m cranking out 4,000 words a day most days and my hands don’t hurt like I’m crippled with arthritis. Try that with an IBM selectric and see what happens.

    When you write such quantity of words – you’re bound to learn something. I’ve learned a lot – and there’s still heaps to learn. I think this is one of the best times to be a writer in the history of the world. Certainly better than scraping hieroglyphics into limestone walls.
    Great post.
    .-= Mike Fook´s last blog ..Agents, Paper, Grammar – Blackholed =-.

  22. I think you need to develop a writing style. Also if you read you will eventually improve your writing.

  23. @Bamboo – I find that the more I write, the easier it gets, too!

    @susan – My mum was so thrilled when I had a magazine article published. She took it to show friends and everything. I guess it was just more “real” to her than my blogging!

    @rob – I *always* find I can cut 10%+ of my words.

    @Mike – Great point about the ease of writing on a computer. Yes, it’s less physical work (though watch the RSI). And I feel your pain about looking back at old work (thankfully, I never wrote much dire teenage poetry — I realised I was rubbish at it and gave up fast!)
    .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..Don’t Think, Write =-.

  24. Ali,
    I always enjoy reading your work and it always rings true. As a newbie freelance writer, it’s good to know that practise does make perfect and that things improve in time.
    Thanks.

  25. Loved the post – in fact I find the idea of writing quality and adding some kind of measureability fascinating.

  26. Actually reading a lot is the best tricks to write well. I was too weak in English writing (my mother language is Bengali. But later, after reading some blogs regularly I have improved myself a lot in English.

    The best things i have learned during writing better is – “whatever you read, read it carefully. Never skim. See, how the sentences are made. Look, how the words has used.”

    Informative and useful post for me……..thanks for it.
    .-= Shamim´s last blog ..How to format or convert Pendrive in NTFS System? =-.

  27. KimNejudne says:

    I loved it. I just started my own blog this week and I want to learn how to actually WRITE my own content. Because right now I’m just posting articles from my favorite authors’ books.

    I loved the tips given here and I sure will practice them. I consider myself very poor in writing and I hope following these tips will improve my writing skills.

  28. Great point about not being able to see our incremental progress. I sometimes look back at my old work for a laugh, but it often cheers me up in more ways than one — I can see how obviously I’ve improved.

  29. Reviewing your old writing works for public speaking, too.

    I tape my presentations with a camcorder. There is no better way to improve your speaking than to review yourself on video.

    And after awhile, the videos show much you’ve improved as a speaker, just as how older writing pieces show how much you’ve improved as a writer.

  30. Great article Ali!

    For the past couple of years I’ve been getting an urge to write, but found myself stuck in a rut whenever I’d pick up a pen and pad. So much I wanted to express, but letting it flow on paper was quite difficult. Especially, when being overly critical of myself. (I’m working on it!)

    I find that to be a big stumbling block for beginners, but like you stated in the article, writing regularly will help us improve and sooner or later, we will look back and see the progress we’ve made.

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