Feeling overwhelmed by all the writing advice on the web?
Perhaps you’ve read a couple of books to improve your writing skills. And you’ve subscribed to the most popular blogs on writing.
But still …
It’s hard to know where to start, right?
You’re not alone. One of the most often asked questions in my inbox is: How do I improve my writing skills?
Let me answer that question and give you a clear action plan.
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Step I. Understand the principles of deliberate practice
Learning to write better can feel like an overwhelming task.
But just like a chef learns how to fry an egg and how to fillet a fish—and just like a violinist practices a difficult passage over and over again—writers can practice specific writing techniques to improve their skills.
These principles of deliberate practice help accelerate your learning:
- Establish your main writing weaknesses. What exactly do you want to improve? For instance, you may want to focus on choosing the right words or writing simpler sentences.
- Read the work of other writers to understand how they apply writing techniques. If you’d like to write with more simplicity, study Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Or if you’d like to improve word choice, see how Ray Bradbury uses strong verbs in Zen in the Art of Writing; gather all your favorite examples in a swipe file—a collection of writing examples to learn from.
- Practice a specific writing technique, and compare your writing to the examples in your swipe file, so you can see how to improve further.
- Get out of your comfort zone—don’t use the examples to put yourself down; instead, challenge yourself to get better and enjoy the learning experience—nurture a growth mindset.
As Anders Ericsson, author of Peak: How All of Us Can Achieve Extraordinary Things, suggests:
In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way.
Part 2. Think before you write
Before you cook a meal, you need a plan of action.
Who’s coming for dinner? What do they like to eat? You create a meal plan, get your groceries, and decide in what order to cook the dishes, so each dish will be ready in time.
Just like a good dinner party needs some planning, good writing starts with thinking, too:
- Who are you writing for? Good writers have a pathological interest in their readers and understand their dreams, fears, and secret wishes.
- Which reader problem will your article help solve? Or which aim will you help achieve? Good content has one clear purpose—to inspire a reader to implement your advice.
- What’s the roadmap to help your readers solve their problems or achieve their aims? The roadmap is the basis for a clear and logical article.
As a good writer, you’re a mentor to your reader. You tell her you understand her problems, explain how to solve them, and encourage her to implement your advice.
Part 3. How to structure your writing
Imagine you’re planning a 4-course dinner to entertain your guests:
- A starter to whet their appetite—how about a spicy chicken galangal soup?
- The main courses—pineapple stirfried rice, ginger-flavored steamed fish, and stirfried morning glory—to nourish your guests
- A dessert of mango with sticky rice to satisfy their sweet tooth
- Coffee, tea or cognac with perhaps a chocolate to enjoy the conversation a little longer
Good writers plan their content as a 4-course dinner, too. And each part has a clear purpose to keep readers captivated from the first to the last word:
- A powerful headline uses power words or numbers to attract attention in busy social media streams, and it mentions a specific benefit to entice followers to click to read more.
- A captivating opening promises readers you’ll help solve a problem so they feel encouraged to read on.
- A valuable main body shows, step by step, how to solve a problem or achieve an aim.
- An inspirational closing jumpstarts readers into action—you only become a true authority when readers experience the difference your advice makes to them.
Your first task as writer is to write with a specific reader and purpose in mind, and to structure your content to achieve that purpose.
Next, learn how to communicate with clarity and power …
Part 4. The 7 basic writing skills everyone must master
A chef needs to learn chopping, sautéing, roasting, boiling, and grilling.
But what are the basic writing techniques you should practice?
- Use the 4-course meal plan to create a logical flow without distractions, so readers stay on track.
- Learn how to use vivid language to make abstract ideas concrete so readers easily grasp and remember your message.
- Learn how to write bite-sized, simple, and meaningful sentences—a good sentence is the basic ingredient of good writing.
- Compose smooth transitions so readers glide effortlessly from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph.
- Practice how to write clearly and concisely so your message becomes strong.
- Discover how to avoid weak words, gobbledygook, and cliches; and spice up your writing with power words including sensory phrases.
- Understand the basics of keyword research and on-page optimization to increase organic search traffic.
Remember, to become a good content writer, you don’t need to turn yourself into a Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, or Margaret Atwood.
Instead, aim to communicate your ideas with power, and make tiny ripples to change the world.
Part 5. The 5 advanced skills to write with personality and pizzazz
Once you’ve learned how to communicate with power and clarity, it’s time to create your signature style:
- Learn how to use the zoom-in-zoom-out technique to weave tiny stories into your content.
- Discover how to pace your stories and hook readers with tiny cliffhangers.
- Cook up fresh metaphors to add flavor to rehashed and boring topics.
- Write long sentences without running out of breath, and discover how to use rhythm to put music into your writing.
- Experiment with word choice and try a more conversational tone so readers start recognizing your voice.
Don’t overthink these writing techniques. Instead, write from the heart, and readers will sense the enthusiasm in your writing. That’s how you engage and spark action.
Part 6. Develop sticky writing habits
How did you learn how to cook? By watching TV and reading recipe books? Or by practicing in the kitchen?
To learn how to write, nurture a regular writing habit. Here’s how …
- Make writing a choice, and book time in your calendar for writing—if you don’t plan time to write, then it won’t get done.
- Set a tiny goal—like writing one paragraph or writing for 10 minutes a day, so it’s almost impossible not to write.
- Create a productive relationship with your inner critic, so you can become a more joyful and prolific writer.
- Start writing, even if you don’t feel motivated—your muse will reward your hard work and your words will start to flow.
- Eliminate distractions and practice how to focus—focus is your productivity super-power.
- Chop up the writing process into steps—outline, first draft, revision, final edit—and spread the work over several days so you can take advantage of percolation; review your writing with fresh eyes so you can make it even better.
Lofty goals don’t help you create a writing habit. Instead, put in the work, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph.
Over time, you’ll build your stamina and boost your confidence.
And your body of work will grow piece by piece.
How to start improving your writing
Feeling a tad overwhelmed?
Here’s your 3-point plan of action to become a better writer:
- Define the purpose of your writing first, and know whom you’re writing for.
- Get the content and the flow right—that’s the most important part of good writing.
- Pick one basic writing skill to practice this week; after you’ve mastered the basic skills, try the advanced writing techniques, one by one.
Rather than strive for greatness, aim to be consistently good enough because that’s how you’ll improve faster.
Your readers are hungry
Your readers crave your ideas.
They want to hear from you. They want to be comforted and inspired by you.
So, what are you waiting for?
Click here to join the 16-Part Snackable Writing Course and learn how to write better marketing copy (it’s free!)
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29 Ways to Improve Your Writing Skills and Escape Content Mediocrity, courtesy of Henneke at Enchanting Marketing
PS This post is an expanded and updated version of an article originally published on March 24th, 2015. The infographic is new.
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