Writing is a craft, and like any other craft your skills need to be honed regularly. Perhaps you’ve been writing for years. Maybe you’re the person who “cleans up” everyone else’s work and provides suggestions and advice — as well as occasional warnings and threats — to your team members. But even if you’re a professional writer and a managing editor, there’s always room for improvement.
Fortunately, there are several (painless) ways to become an even better writer and inch a little closer to that Pulitzer.
Read a Book or 2 – or 10
I’m a voracious reader. I’ll read everything and anything. I don’t want to listen to your podcast or watch your video — I would rather just read the transcript. I don’t want to watch the news on TV; I prefer to read it online. When I purchase an item, I’ll read the entire receipt, and then flip it over to read the back. When I’m eating cereal, I’ll read every single word on the box. I love reading books because it’s both exciting and relaxing, and it serves two purposes: I gain new knowledge and I get a refresher course on the mechanics of writing.
As a writer I frequently shift gears between writing for the business community and for consumers, so I’m always searching for better ways to communicate to those audiences.
“The actual act of writing itself is simple, but good writing is hard,” says Michael Schiavetta, special communications strategist at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). “And you only become a better writer by achieving a better understanding of what different audiences like to read.”
Aside from writing more, Schiavetta says the best way to improve your writing is to read, read, read. “But don’t confine yourself to a particular genre. Read books — nonfiction and fiction — magazines, poetry, short stories, even websites with good long-form writing,” he says.
Jennifer Lee Magas is vice president of Magas Media Consultants and a clinical associate professor of public relations at Pace University. She’s been a college professor for over 15 years and has taught classes ranging from composition and literature to business and technical writing at institutions including Yale University.
“In order for your writing to be versatile, you have to read different types of books,” Magas says. “For example, reading poetry can help you convey emotion, while reading a crime story could help you build momentum and excitement.” She recommends reading once every day as a way to quickly improve your writing skills.
Look Outside Your Genre for Ideas
Julie Godsoe, editorial director in NYIT’s Office of Strategic Communications & External Affairs, suggests being open to learning from a variety of sources. “As a fiction writer, I’ve utilized Pixar’s famed 22 rules of storytelling for years, but it wasn’t until I recently attended a marketing writing workshop … that I realized many of those rules could also be applied to journalism and marketing content,” she says.
What did Godsoe learn at the workshop? “Good writing technique transcends genre,” she says. “ ‘The Hero’s Journey’ may be tailor-made for fantasy writers, but it could also serve as the perfect structure for your next in-depth profile.”
Make Your Writing as Clear as a Glass of Water
“The president, impetuous, injudiciously launched a missile into space.”
Magas suggests writing in simple terms rather than trying to sound like a know-it-all intellectual: “The president, who was reckless, foolishly launched a missile into space.”
You have to admit the second one is much better. “While college-level words add sophistication to your work, adding too many looks like you’re trying too hard — and it also confuses readers, many of whom probably don’t spend their weekends studying Webster’s dictionary,” Magas says.
Write the Same Way You Tie Your Shoe
“The first step to tying your shoe is to first take one string in one hand and then the other string in the other hand and after that you pull them tight with both hands, and then… .”
Magas says you shouldn’t write the way you talk unless you’re mentally punctuating when you do. “The trick is to keep your sentences short and to the point — in other words, write tighter.” She says wordy writing makes your text hard to read, which makes it hard to understand.
“The way you tie your shoe is the same way you should write,” Magas says. “Otherwise you’ll have readers tripping over your words, pun intended.”
Write with Your Senses
Employ descriptive writing techniques. “As the attention spans of readers grow ever shorter, it may be tempting for journalists to report on ‘just the facts’ or marketers to go straight for the sales pitch, but details that put readers in the moment will go a long way to capturing their attention,” says Godsoe. “Sensory details — from descriptions of setting to the smells that make a place distinct or even what an interview subject is wearing — can take even a short news item from drab to fab.”
Take an Online Writing Class
Take an online writing course to really up your game. There are even several good free courses. Magas recommends:
- English Composition from Arizona State University: a free, a ‘back to basics’ eight-week program requiring 18 hours of work per week.
- Adjectives and Adjective Clauses from the University of California.
- Adventures in Writing from Stanford University.
I’m going to take this advice and start looking for new ways to beef up my own writing skills every month — but, I’ll continue to scan every cereal box and receipt.
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