There are a variety of tricks to improve your writing skills. It isn’t as difficult as you might think. If you want to improve your writing, there are a couple of things to do right away. First, make it a conscious choice. Next, know where you want to go. Sometimes we say we want to improve something, but we have no idea what that looks like and when we’ve actually achieved it. Ask yourself: what specifically do I want or need to improve in my writing? Voice? Conversational style? Humor? Structure? Organization? The bottom line is that becoming a better writer takes practice, so dive in.
Here are 20 Tricks to help you improve your writing.
1. Structure your writing
There is nothing wrong with stream of consciousness word play when you’re writing in your journal. However, if you actually want to communicate effectively, you’ll need to organize those rambling thoughts.
2. Stay strong in your expertise
Before you start writing, know your expertise and stay in your lane. If your writing goal is to know and understand what you’re saying, then stick to it. Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Know what you do and do it well!
3. Outline first
Get ye organized. Making an outline helps to clarify thoughts and gives you a chance to work through the underlying topics and questions a reader might have. Lead your reader through the topics you’re writing about in an organized manner.
4. Everyone has a question
Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Do they have enough information to understand what you’re talking about? Do you need to fill in the blank? Also keep in mind who is reading your writing. Are they experts? Are they beginners? These two different audiences have different questions. Be clear on who is reading your writing.
5. Don’t over-explain
Yes, you need to answer questions before they’re asked, but keep things simple. Writing needs to give readers enough information to understand without overwhelming them with details. If you tend to go off topic or add a lot of details, take the time to look at each piece of information. Then, ask “is this essential to understanding what I’m trying to say?” If not, get rid of it. My rule of thumb is to delete 20% of what I've written initially.
6. Tighten it up
Sometimes we write like we talk, which is fine if a conversational tone is what you’re after. However, writing that rambles or is wordy makes the text difficult to read. It also makes it sound like you don’t exactly know what you’re talking about. Be concise and focus.
7. Put the brakes on prepositional phrases
Prepositional phrases have a preposition and an object. The object can be a noun, a verb ending in “-ing” that acts like a noun, or a clause. Some of the most common prepositions are to, of, about, at, before, after, by, behind, during, for, from, in, over, under, and with. Try to simplify them where it makes sense to give your writing a clarity boost. If you see more than one preposition for every ten or fifteen words in your writing, edit some of them out. Both sentences below are grammatically correct, but the revised version has more clarity.
Original: It is best to behave with caution when running with a sword in the presence of the King.
Revised: In the King’s presence, run cautiously with your sword.
8. Friends don’t let friends use filler words
Every writer has “tell” words. These are words that show up in our writing all the time, and they don’t contribute much to the understanding or clarity of our writing. Mine is “just.” These filler words and phrases sometimes add a splash or pizzazz, but most of the time they create clutter. Look for words such as basically, just, very, really, quite, simply, that, had, as a matter of fact, for the most part, and all of.
9. Power up your words
Adverbs are words that often end in -ly and modify verbs and sometimes adjectives. Feel free to use them once in a while, but when you find yourself using them as a crutch in your writing, you’re making weak word choices. Instead of “ran really fast” try “sprinted.” Was something “extremely funny” or was it “hilarious?” The scenery may have been “very beautiful,” but your writing’s going to shine if you use words such as “gorgeous,” “lush,” or “dazzling.”
10. Keep your wording simple
When you consider that the average person reads at an eighth-grade level, keep it simple! Bestselling author John Grisham said, “There are three types of words: (1) words we know; (2) words we should know; (3) words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category and use restraint with those in the second.” Having a rich vocabulary is fantastic. Congratulations! Now, dial it back a notch for the rest of us. Dropping million-dollar words comes across as showing off. Unless it’s your intent to be poetic, keep your language simple and direct.
11. Use contractions
Our English teachers did us a disservice. English speakers use contractions. If you write without contractions, you come across stiff and formal. I give you permission to use contractions again! You’re welcome.
12. Say it out loud
This may sound strange, but you’ll be amazed at what you learn about your writing using this one weird trick! Use a recorder to get your thoughts out of your head. Then, transcribe what you said word for word. Fix or remove any false starts and fillers (um, uh, like, you know). Now, you have more natural writing.
13. Know the rules so you can break them
Yes, it’s a good idea to know grammatical rules, but unless you’re writing a formal dissertation, it’s okay to end your sentence with a preposition or start sentences with conjunctions. It’s okay! Writing isn’t brain surgery. No one’s going to die. Write naturally! It’s all good.
14. Simple sentences please
Unless you’re one of the literary greats (Faulkner, Tolstoy, Tolkien, or Dickens) who can write long, complex sentences with amazing grace, keep it simple. Short, less complicated sentences are easier to read. But also don't forget to vary your sentence lengths, so your writing has a beautiful flow and doesn't sound monotonous.
15. Read it out loud
Speaking of flow, reading your writing aloud helps to determine whether it flows or not. Does your writing sounds choppy and clipped? Add a few longer sentences with conjunctions (and, but, or, yet, than, because, so, for)to break up a monotonous beat. If you find yourself stumbling over parts, there may be a series of complex sentences that need to be rewritten or broken up. Record yourself reading your writing or use a natural reader to hear your writing being read to you.
16. Give your writing personality
Let your personality shine through your writing. This is how you develop a writing style. Use the phrases and slang that you would normally use (within reason). When it’s appropriate, throw in a relevant personal anecdote. Be yourself when you write. Everyone else is taken.
17. Practice makes progress
The ultimate way to improve your writing is to learn what weakens it. Write and then write some more. The more you write, edit, and proofread, the better you’ll get. Perfect writing is unrealistic. Always go for progress. And while you're at it, don't compare your writing to others. Compare your writing to the writing you did yesterday. That will show your progress.
18. Watch Tense Shifts
Choose a tense when you start and don’t stray from it. In a fiction book, dialogue or internal thought is not a shift in tense. In this instance, the dialogue is present tense, and the narration is past tense.
19. Experiment with writing prompts
All writers can benefit from writing prompt. There are tons of prompts online or simply come up with a question, then write the answer. Pick a prompt that excites you, stimulates your imagination, and encourages your creativity.
20. Use active voice
Active voice animates your writing, where the subject is acting on its verb. An active voice makes you sound confident—you know what you’re talking about. Passive voice adds a lot of unnecessary words.
Active: The dog bit the man. Passive: The man was bitten by the dog.
One last thought, many times when the writing experts talk about improving your writing, what they’re really talking about is revising your writing. My favorite motto is Write First. Edit Later. Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. Actually, it probably won’t be. Make a gazillion mistakes. Let your writing suck. Write how it comes naturally. There is no writer alive who gets it right the first time. You won’t either. It’s Okay!
When you're ready, grab the Self-Editing Checklist to improve your writing.