6 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR WRITING
1 · Nail the basics
While writing is a creative art in essence, it is also governed by precise rules and conventions. Scholars believe that writing systems were invented independently in three parts of the world: the Near East (c. 3200 BC), China (c. 1400BC), and Mesoamerica (ca 600). These writing systems have spread worldwide and the method has been refined over millennia, so it's probably in your best interest to understand and adhere to these laws (aka. spelling, punctuation, and grammar). Thanks to this hip thing called the internet, you don't need school to review the basics. Resources like Grammarly are a great tool kit for writers, as are the following free style guides:
National Geographic (American)
The Guardian (British)
For a polished writing piece, go beyond a quick Spellcheck and ensure your writing has:
parallel sentence structure
proper use of semi-colons and em dashes
an active voice in the most fitting tense
no misplaced or dangling modifiers
“Don’t break the rules when you haven’t fully figured them out yet.”
- PAWAN MISHRA
2 · WRITE WITH PURPOSE
Know what you want to say before labouring over how to say it. This not only saves you time, but creates a clear, coherent message for your readers. Whether detailed outlines, quickly-jotted notes, or bullet points floating in your headspace suit you best, words materialize from solid building blocks more often than thin air.
‘Style to be good must be clear.
Clearness is secured by using words that are current and ordinary.’
3 · EMBRACE minimalism
This is not to say that one must avoid description or length, but to employ both mindfully; substituting fluff for economy with words seems to jive best with contemporary readers.
‘Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them;
and in the plainest possible words, or he will certainly misunderstand them.’
- JOHN RUSKIN
‘Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”.
Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’
- WILLIAM ALLEN WHITE
‘When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly,
but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.’
- MARK TWAIN
'Pare it down to the essence, but don't remove the poetry.'
- LEONARD KOREN
4 · write genuinely
Believe the content you're writing, and say it your way. Steer yourself away from using idioms and common expressions (they're a dime a dozen—see?) and relay ideas in your own words. That said, don't get let pressure to sound original become a writing block; you'll engage readers by being open, vulnerable, and most of all, genuine.
‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.’
- GEORGE ORWELL
‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’
- ELMORE LEONAR
'Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.'
- KURT VONNEGUT
5 · Nurture your writing style
Recognize your writing style. Whether you're cognizant of it or not, you have a writing style; every time you write, it is with certain habits, inclinations, and patterns. Your tone might be casual, formal, or quirky. You might draw from a bank of go-to words, default to the same adjectives, or slip into a passive voice. Perhaps you rely too heavily on commas when you might be better served by semi-colons or em dashes. Re-read your writing and see what observations you can make about your own style.
Hone your writing style. Take the time and effort to improve clarity and eliminate bad habits (this ties into nailing the basics). Reading a diverse range of books, then analyze what you like about it. Do you tend to stick with non-fiction? Are you still trying to get through all those names you're 'supposed' to read? Do you look for a certain quirkiness as with Murakami and Tom Robbins? Recognizing whether you take to a particular style and how it affects your writing will help your voice evolve, as will introducing yourself to the diversity of writing out there waiting.
Adapt your writing style. Chances are you already compose a work e-mail differently than you would type up a message to a friend, academic paper, or social media post (writing captions is a time-vacuum, I know!)—but are you adapting your writing style with intent? Honing your writing skills equips you to be as unconventional and experimental as you dare, but it is important to do so with your medium and end goal in mind.
‘I am a poet. I distrust anything that starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop.’
- ANTJIE KROG
6 · Journal
No, I don't mean huddling under the sheets with a flashlight while you Dear Diary... (unless you want to). Treat yourself to a nice new Moleskine and commit to writing for yourself—you don't have to post or publish writing for it to count as practice.
Some ideas to get the ball (-point pen) rolling:
start a travel journal
track everyday musings or certain hobbies (ie. the wine you drink, the movies you love/hate)
blog or 'how to' articles relating to your job, interests, or experiences
send postcards or letters (revive the pen pal!)
write short vignettes or short stories
take a stab at poetry (ok poetry can seem daunting but writing cute little haiku's ain't so bad, and re-arranging fridge magnets totally counts
Looking for more? Check out the following RESOURCES
BBC Archive of interviews with writers including Virginia Woolf,
Aldous Huxley, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Margaret Atwood.
Masterclass: Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing (plus other classes by
Malcolm Gladwell, Judy Blume, R.L. Stine) — accessible with free 7-day trial.
Skillshare: 10-Day Journalling Course — try it out with the free 7-day trial.