Rewriting Your Writing: How to Be a Better Writer

“How do you write website content?” That’s a tricky question I’m often asked. There are standards and suggested guidelines to follow, sure, but teaching someone the difference between how to write content and how to write content that shines is tough.

I have a trick, though: Put your skills to the test and start rewriting.

Before I go on, I’d like to say that I don’t intend for people to edit their work mercilessly until it’s either too pristine to be any good or so far off the original that it doesn’t even resemble itself anymore. I also don’t mean you should grab someone else’s work, change a few words and pass it off as your own.

I definitively don’t want anyone to use this trick to rehash what someone else has written. You have a brain; use it. Be creative. Write your own damned blog posts.

What I do want is to give you a way to use existing content as a means to improve your own writing skills through observation and practical application. Writing website content from scratch is tough, especially for someone just starting out.

Rewriting lets your brain focus on improving versus creating. You can get better at writing without thinking too hard about what to write in the first place.

So let’s begin. Visit any page on any website. There’s very little out there that is perfect, and almost all text can use improvement. Take any of our content pages on our site here and use those, for example. Some the content is quite good; some is pure crap.

Examine the text. Try to determine if there is a mood or emotion conveyed. Pinpoint what that mood might be. Which words enhance the feeling? Which don’t? Are there words you could switch with better ones to convey more emotion or play up the mood?

Narrow down techniques and style. Did the writer use a specific strategy or pen prose in a particular way? Are sentences short or long? Are there many adjectives or is the content very concise? Can you narrow down the style of writing used to convey the message? Is there a better style you could try?

Verify the structure of the content. Is there a headline? How long is it? Is it effective? Why? Read the introduction and see if it accomplished its purpose. Examine the body and paragraph breaks. Do they occur in the right places for maximum impact? Does the conclusion wrap things up nicely or give a good call to action?

Now it’s time to practice. Try to change the mood of the content. Switch out words and adjectives. If the text you selected is authoritative and strong, make it gentle and soft. If it’s emotion-evoking and poignant, make it direct and short. If it’s academic, apply some storytelling.

Try making the content stronger. There’s a lot of fluff out there, and it isn’t all related to bunnies, either. Be merciless. Chop out unnecessary words, cut the fat, and remove repetitive sentences or redundant phrasing. See how concise you can be with the content while retaining the core message. Oh, and kill all passive language on sight, too.

Now reword everything, top to bottom. Imagine that you’ve been hired to make this content better. What would you write? How would you do it? Where can you improve the text and what should you leave as is? That’s important to know – making content better doesn’t always mean you need to rewrite everything. If a section works, leave it, or just change the necessary. Sometimes switching three words out of 50 makes all the difference.

The more you practice rewriting content, the better you’ll become at writing. You can do this with any type of content, too – textbooks, fiction, blog posts… you name it. Soon enough, you’ll be able to glance at a page and know exactly what the author did, why, and what could have been done differently. Weak areas will leap out at you. You’ll notice power words or psychological strategies more easily.

Best of all, you’ll become a stronger writer who can convey a message in various ways and different styles.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Wow. Read the post, ran away for a bit to re-write one of my own pieces… just wow.

    I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. Sure, I probably knew most of it before reading the post, but to see it all in one place and to have you telling us, “go re-write, damn it!” really cements the advice in my brain.

    Kinda crazy how much of a difference these tips can make.

    Thank you, James. 🙂

  2. James,

    Get the camera out of my bedroom now.

    This summer I was finishing a writing project that was out of my normal sphere. I went to the bookstore, thinking I’d pick up On Writing or something, and after looking at it and a bunch of other stuff in the section, I decided that wasn’t what I needed. I wandered until a John Irving book caught my eye in the clearance bin. Great author, maybe not his finest work. I thought it might tell me what I wanted to know.

    Took it home, read the book at many midnights while tearing apart sentences and plot lines, looking for where he was able to carry me away and why, where it was easy to pay attention to sentences because he wasn’t really grabbing my heart. I was close to done with my writing, so he didn’t influence it, but boy, did he help me edit.

    It’s a brilliant exercise, I highly recommend it.

    Regards,

    Kelly

    Kellys last blog post..Tip of the Week: SIMPLIFY, Simplify, simplify

  3. Great exercise, James.

    I’m a big fan of chopping out unnecessary words in Web copy (especially excessive adjectives and adverbs). Clear and concise is key when it comes to the Web, considering most site visitors are only there to get answers to their questions and move on.

    Rebecca Smiths last blog post..New tricks for an old dog

  4. James,

    I took a short break from some rewrites I am wrestling with this week and lo and behold, I find this nugget that is right on the mark. Revision/rewrites is my biggest struggle, I fall squarely into the “edit the work mercilessly” camp.

    Thanks for the tip. I’m off to copy, paste, rewrite some content…

    Regards,
    Gary

    Gary Fletchers last blog post..Guitar Practice Routine: Hamburger’s Tips

  5. @ Gary – If you’re reading this, you aren’t practicing guitar… hehehe.

    Often, editing isn’t the answer to make something better. Well, not editing in the way we think. Expanded editing, really ripping it apart and thinking about what could be better, often opens up a world of thoughts and good stuff. Have at it, bro. Then go play as a reward. 😉

    @ Rebecca – You hit the nail on the head there! Get info and go is the mantra of many, many people today. Make it easy for them, eh?

    @ Kelly – Damn. And I thought I’d hidden it so well… I envy you the ability to hit a bookstore with real books (in English!) that you can hold, skim and decide on good buy/bad buy. Jealous. Yes.

    @ Allison – Heh, here’s one for you. Go grab a post off of Escaping Reality, one of the really old starting ones. Rewrite it – and then compare. Fun stuff, that 🙂

  6. James,

    Barnes & Noble is within walking distance. For a book/ mag addict (me!), it’s a total fantasy. One of the advantages of living in a megalopolis.

    Of course, half the time when I go, I find three things I love but can wait for, and order them at amazon to save money, but the other time they get my $$ when I just can’t wait. Smart company, to make killing an hour so easy.

    Until later,

    Kelly

    Kellys last blog post..Remember When Transparency Meant, Well…

  7. I learn from others on a daily basis, and am so glad that the web facilitates that exercise. When working on client projects, I visit competitive sites to see how they use language, what points they convey, etc. I am also apt to pull a book from the shelf or a magazine from my stash. Sometimes a phrase will catch me and I will analyze its rhythm to recreate as my own. Great writers learn from reading and that applies to online writing too. Wonderful tips, please keep them coming.

    Karen Swims last blog post..Hurricane Life

  8. Very good instruction James. On thought is to remember to allow yourself to be open to the material you read. If you become too focused on re-writing content, like when we are commenting on others blogs, we may lose the point entirely while trying to fit the ‘style” into our own perceptions. I say this, because I can easily do it, so it is a disipline I have chosen to practice.

    Another thought to share…the audience you write for, determines the style and content. Sometimes you are just the wrong reader for the text. 🙂

    Thank you James for making me thing this am. I rarely do. 🙂

    Harmonys last blog post..Are You a “CONTROL FREAK”?

  9. Congratulations for the blog! It´s very interesting.
    Keep up the good work.

  10. Graham Strong says:

    “You can get better at writing without thinking too hard about what to write in the first place.”

    Excellent point James! It helps you look at the mechanics of the words — what they are saying between the lines, what the theme and mood is behind them, how they are carrying the story, etc. — and put that polish on them. I’ve found the more you polish now, the shinier your words become in the first draft of future writing.

    I’d also like to add two other things. First, a great place to start rewriting is your own marketing copy (i.e. web content, ebooks, articles, etc.) like Allison mentioned above.

    Second, it also helps to deconstruct other writers, kind of like Kelly mentioned. I like to pick up Fitzgerald, read a random passage, and rip it apart out of context. This way I can see how strong the passage stands on its own. (Not to mention, this method often allows you to see things in the novel, short story, etc. you may not have noticed otherwise…)

    Great post!

    ~Graham

    Graham Strongs last blog post..Lipstick on a Pig or “Hog-Tied Marketing”

  11. All right; I’ll do it.

    Mark Dykemans last blog post..How to blog by Merlin Mann

  12. Urban Panther says:

    Excellent training ground? Having to edit government prose. Talk about having to trim the fat, get rid of the passive and ambiguous, and actually draw out the point!

    Urban Panthers last blog post..Half light

  13. Hi James, This is great advice. I’ve tried it with fiction but I hadn’t thought about doing it with blog posts. I’m going to give it a try.

  14. @Allison If you do rewrite an ER post, you should post it in your Drive-By area. I’d love to read it!

    Nicole Brunets last blog post..Mum & Dad go boating

  15. Hm,, this could be fun…work…but fun work.

    Janice Cartiers last blog post..Dean Moriarity and Tokyo Tam

  16. James-

    “Rewriting lets your brain focus on improving versus creating. You can get better at writing without thinking too hard about what to write in the first place.”

    Holy cow. I’ve been doing that with fiction since I was 11 years old and never realized it.

    Originally I did it…well, hell, I was 11. I thought it would be fun to take a story I liked and rewrite it. Over the past few years, though, I’ve realized my “for fun” story has actually become a practicing ground for everything I was learning about writing both in and out of college: dialogue, syntax, structure, etc. etc.

    I’m off to start doing that for some websites now…thanks for the great post!

    Michelles last blog post..The Barenaked Archives: An Unfinished Life

  17. “The more you practice rewriting content, the better you’ll become at writing.”

    That is a good method of enhancing one’s writing skills–regularly rewriting the content of others.

    Also, eventually, it can be a source of motivation and inspiration for you, as you realize you may, in fact, be able to write a piece better than the original author–if they were good enough to get published, then you have a good shot at getting published as well.

    Jesse Hiness last blog post..ProBlogger Darren Rowse Says Good Grammar Matters When Applying For Blogging Jobs

  18. James – Ooooh a challenge! I like a challenge. 😀

    Nicole – Okay then, I’ll post it just for you! Now to look through all my old writing… o_0

    Allison Days last blog post..Welcome, my friends

  19. Interesting method to improve writing.

    “See how concise you can be with the content while retaining the core message.”

    I love conciseness. It’s like a chocolate ice-cream cone on a hot summer day.

    Bamboo Forests last blog post..Some Bits About Me

  20. I always rewrite everything I do. I hate extra words and unnecessary metaphors. My blog posts, for example, usually start much longer but then I start cutting. I look at the one message I want to get across and cut out the rest. It’s great fun – I feel so satisfied after a good slice and dice session.

    Economy of language – woo hoo!

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndromes last blog post..Relying on Memory

  21. Nice idea, but I so disagree that any of your content is pure crap. 🙂
    If 50% of the Internet content was half as good as yours, well, the world be a better place. Kinda like one with winged horses and rainbows. 😀

    Jamies last blog post..9 Steps to Clearer Writing: Keep it Flowing

  22. James, I think this is a great idea. I will definately make time for this exercise in my weekly schedule.

  23. Urban Panther says:

    Alright, I have been challenged by this post. I am going to do a little experiment. From this coming Monday on, I will edit all posts to a limit of 600 words. In return, I expect..sorry, I politely and humbly ask you to have a read next week and see if you notice a difference.

    Urban Panthers last blog post..Yep, right after I tidy up the kitchen

  24. Copywriters Needed- No Experience Required- $200/hr says:

    Usually when I am rewriting, I take out a lot of uneccessary words that have no meaning or value to it to get straight to the point. I also try to use visuals to keep the reader interested. Good post!

  25. The idea behind this is fantastic. My only question is how do those who don’t know how to write on the Internet differentiate between good and bad writing? Reworking others’ pieces seems great in theory, but issues arise when readers don’t know which words are unnecessary and can be cut out. Maybe list a few guidelines for first-time Web authors (getting more in depth than here). Overall, great suggestions though!

    Laura Luettgers last blog post..Beware ye folk of nuns

  26. I don’t usually re-write. Yes, I’ll correct glaring problems but usually my first effort is my best. Note that I’m not saying it is THE best, but it’s usually MY best.

    I also have the attitude that it’s not all that critical. I’m not selling writing services as Harry and James are – I sell technical services, so as long as the readers understand what I wrote, I’ve done what I needed to do.

    Next, I don’t feel that I can afford the time to re-write. I’m a busy dude, with very full days. I want to crank out a post or an email and move on to the next task. My wife is my polar opposite: she’ll spend an hour on one email, tweaking every word to convey exactly what she wants. I point out to her that email is probably the most pointless place to spend time on your style, but she just can’t let it go until it says it “just so”.

    She’d probably spend a half hour rewording these paragraphs.. I’m just going to hit “Submit” 🙂

  27. Nothing easy about writing good content. I’m constantly striving to improve my ability.

    I think the best writing comes down to how persuasive it was.

    Bamboo Forest´s last blog post…How to Prevent Being Struck by Your Mind’s Immobilizing Arrows

  28. As a copywriter who’s barreled through almost every big league copy coach out there I’ve heard repeatedly we should rewrite classic ads so we unconsciously absorb how a real deal presentation goes down.

    This technique seems like it could be applied to writing top notch content for blogs too.

    Find sites who get mega views and who have cult like followings. Look for the legendary posts that’ve inspired a gang of comments (like this one). Copy and paste ’em into word and rewrite ’em.

    By re-writing these, preferably by hand, you’re feeding the DNA of posts that generate response into your subconscious. In my opinion this is the richest content flows from.

    But if don’t upload awesome material for it to assemble kick ass content we can expect blah.

    Stephen King in his book “On Writing” suggests there’s two ways to improve your writing. Reading and writing.

    Now after you’ve squirreled away a nice little stash of these hits look for a pattern you can model.

    By doing this with a wide range of writing styles in copywriting I’ve seen my voice develop into it’s own skin instead of parroting the one copywriter I kept modeling.

    Another idea I’ve found extremely helpful as well as entertaining when it comes to improving my writing is to step away from writing that sounds, well, like writing.

    This means the world of fiction.

    Who besides me has blasted through a 300+ page fiction book in a couple of days?

    Hypnotic fiction is lubed.

    Night and day difference between this and content written by someone who hasn’t written since they left school.

    Magnetic fiction doesn’t land on your mind like writing. It flows like creek water because it sounds like we talk. Especially when it’s dialogue masterfully mimics the slang of the characters.

    If someone is new to writing or wants to let their degrees in English lit shine through, their writing sounds try hard.

    I’ve found myself re-writing key sections of dialogue or descriptions from fiction written by Robert Parker and Elmore Leonard. And I believe my writing is better because of it.

    Hey, I know these ideas sound like work and it is. And this is why 80% of people will never use them but I trust the 5 – 20% who do take action on them will profit immensely.

    Til next time,

    Note Taking Nerd #2
    http://www.mynotetakingnerd.wordpress.com

    Note Taking Nerd #2´s last blog post…Long Haired Mexican Pot Head Shocks This Marketer With His Common Sense Sales Persuasion Tactics

  29. James, thanks for the clear and concise post on how to become a better writer. This is one of the best post in that category.

    I absolutely love the way how you wrote this article, it was a mix of both, the writing tips and the motivation required to actually put it to use.

    🙂

    Haris´s last blog post…Go Green WordPress Theme is Here to Rock Your Blog

  30. @ Haris – You’re very welcome, and thank you back!

  31. Gary Blake says:

    Having been a freelance journalist for 8 1/2 years in the past but never being a blogger. I think this is a good time to start and this seems to be a good place to learn as any. Rewriting for web content seems to be more personal and yet as professional as anything in the print industry. Let the games begin. Isn’t learning a new direction for writing fun? Honest I didn’t do that. That stain was there before I got here.

  32. Rewriting is like personal hygiene, you do it like you it. If and when you feel you need it. Or not. The world then gets to judge how you’re doing on those counts. There are no rules, and you get to decide. What works for one doesn’t necessary work for another.

    The real issue, I think, is what and how do we rewrite. How to be a better blogger? Focus on the main issues of successful blogging, which can be simplified and expressed in this forumla: x + y = readership.

    X is your writing style, your attitude. Without Y (see below), it’s all just mouthing off. Imbue your writing style with an edge, make it personal, get in their face, make is self-deprecating, and make it anything north of boring. And use words like “imbue” when you can, only very carefully.

    Y is value. Some call it content, but you can have content that is rehashed and watered down, and that’s not value. Present something the reader can use, can actually take forward to move forward.

    Like, X plus Y equals Readership. Hope this helps. It’s helped me.

    Larry Brooks´s last blog post…Writing Better Fiction: Inside the Six Core Competencies

  33. Ok I will try to rewrite and rewrite my writings until I will master it!
    Thanks for this very use guidelines.

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