Eager to improve your writing skills but don’t know where to start?
Good writing is an essential skill in your communication toolbox. Whether you’re crafting a story for a creative writing class, submitting a report to the head honcho, polishing up your resume, or a freelance writer, your writing represents you.
What are the most important writing skills? And how can you improve yours?
Research, structure, grammar, readability, and editing make the list of basic writing skills.
Here you’ll find 15 easy tips on how to improve these 5 types of writing skills. Practice them often and you’ll punch up your writing in no time.
Let’s dive in!
The 5 Essential Writing Skills
First, let’s take a closer look at the five basic writing skills mentioned above.
1. Research (Like a Pro)
Before you put pen to paper, you need to do your homework.
Professional writers know that research is the cornerstone of good writing.
While most people research their topic and ideas to gather facts, researching the expected audience (and anticipating their questions) adds another dimension to your writing.
2. Think Like an Architect & Create Structure
Just like building a house, structure provides a strong foundation for your writing. And one of the best ways to create structure is to start with an outline.
Clarify your ideas, then simplify them.
3. Know the Rules (of Grammar) and How to Break Them
Proper English is taught in grammar school.
But now they say, “write like you talk.” So unless you’re writing a formal proposal (or an English essay), feel free to break the grammar rules you learned in English 101.
Even the Chicago Manual of Style says it’s okay to dangle your prepositions.
4. Let Your Voice Be Heard
Writers eventually develop their own writing style; their voice, as it’s called.
And, just like people recognize a voice when a person speaks, readers will quickly learn to recognize your voice when they read your writing.
Practice any (or all) of the following 15 tips for 6-12 months, then revisit your old writing.
Your new, improved, and unique voice will astonish you.
5. Edit Emphatically (AKA “Kill Your Darlings”)
FIRST DRAFTS ARE CRAP!
They’re supposed to be.
The goal for this part of the writing process is to empty thoughts out of your head.
So, let the words flow, finish your first draft, and celebrate!
Then, go back, and “kill your darlings.”
As Stephen King says in On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft:
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
In other words, edit ruthlessly. No matter how beautiful you think a sentence is, how funny or clever — if it’s not working, it’s gotta go.
Now, with that basic writing skills review done, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
15 Surefire Ways to Level Up Your Writing Skills
1. Research Your Audience
Research your audience, then mirror the words and phrases they use back at them; they’ll think you’re one of the gang.
Check out blog posts and forums to get a feel for industry-specific jargon. Social media posts and comments found on Amazon.com are also valuable resources.
Make sure the tone matches your audience.
Writing a “weekend update” email to your mother is (generally) different than texting an update to your best friend which should be different than talking about your weekend to a colleague (unless your mother is also your best friend and colleague, then all bets are off!)
Some writers find creating an avatar to represent their “perfect reader” and writing directly to them helps them focus and stay on track.
2. Research Your Readers’ Questions
Anticipating and answering readers’ questions before they’re asked makes your readers feel like you know and understand them.
Reviewing questions people ask on sites like Quora, Reddit, and Amazon gives valuable insight into your audience.
Do this well, and some readers might even call you psychic.
3. Begin With an Outline (No Matter How Brief)
Outlining organizes your thoughts and ideas.
It serves as a roadmap, exposes holes in your message, and guards against redundant content.
Not only that, but it also makes you more efficient — which increases productivity.
4. Simplify Your Topic and Ideas
KISS your project.
That is, Keep It Simple, Sweetie!
If you have multiple or complex concepts, use the Rule of Three to break your content into simple, easily-digested chunks.
This well-known technique helps your writing flow and keeps readers engaged.
5. Don’t Over-Explain
If you’ve become an expert on your topic, then you’ve collected a wealth of information.
You may want to share it all.
But going too wide on a topic or diving too deep into details can create confusion and overwhelm.
Give just enough information to explain your ideas and answer questions. But not so much they lose interest.
Focusing on one to three key ideas is a good rule of thumb for effective writing.
Less is more!
6. Keep Sentences Simple, but Vary the Structure
Use short sentences mixed with longer ones.
According to Wordcounter.net, an average sentence for easy reading should be 15-20 words. Anything longer and you might have a run-on sentence.
Run-ons take time and energy to decipher. So, unless you have English writing skills like Charles Dickens, many readers will just stop reading.
The active voice keeps sentences short, fast, and easy to read. Passive sentences are usually longer with a slower pace.
So, use an active voice to keep the pace moving but, as Dr. Suess says:
You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it alive and vital.
7. Use a Big Vocabulary and KISS (Again)
Reading the same word over and over becomes monotonous (boring, even).
Use a thesaurus to find the perfect substitute and add variety to your paragraph. Just don’t go hog-wild and end up with a gallimaufry.
And don’t use obscure words like “gallimaufry” (hodge-podge, jumble, confused medley).
Instead choose short, simple, common words whenever possible. Writing at a 6-7 grade level keeps your message clear, concise and easily understood.
Check the readability score of your writing on a free site like Hemingway.
This app will even identify ways to improve your writing. (Fun fact: Hemingway wrote between a 4th and 6-grade level and won both a Nobel Prize in Literature and a Pulitzer in Fiction!)
8. Use Contractions
We shorten our words when we talk, so use contractions when you write. They’re less formal, more engaging, and easier to read.
Examples of common contractions include:
- I would = I’d
- You are = You’re
- You will = You’ll
- It has = It’s
- Where is = Where’s
9. Read — A Lot
Did you ever sleep with a book under your pillow, hoping the information will seep into your brain?
While that may not have helped your Algebra score, reading quality books, magazines, and newspapers actually imprints the brain with an unconscious awareness of the sounds and structure of quality writing.
As you read, pay attention to the words, phrases, and sentence structure. Being actively involved while reading helps pull this unconscious awareness out of your head when writing time comes.
10. Copy Other Writers
Plagiarism is never acceptable, but copying successful writers is a practice many copywriters and content marketers swear by.
Rewriting, word for word, content from copywriting and content marketing greats like Dan Kennedy (affiliate link) and Jon Morrow, imprints structure into the brain so you can imitate their techniques without plagiarizing.
For a list of great masters to copy, check out The Brain-Dead Simple But Astonishingly Effective Way to Become a Better Writer.
11. Learn, Baby, Learn!
Cultivating strong writing skills is a life-long venture.
Have fun reviewing fundamentals with word games like WordsWithFriends, the NYT crossword puzzle (the mini is fast, fun, and free) and grammar quizzes.
Use playful exercises to improve your skills by throwing Rory’s Story Cubes or concocting elaborate stories while people-watching.
Enroll in writing courses and workshops; you’ll meet like-minded writers and receive invaluable feedback that’ll dramatically improve your writing skills.
12. Keep It Tight
Cut filler Words and Phrases
Writers often repeat pet words and phrases.
I overuse “help,” such as: “These tips will help you become a better writer.” The sentence is wordy and I sound like I’m fudging.
“These tips will make you a better writer” is true and more compelling.
So, watch for your fillers — as well as these 298 Filler Words and Phrases That Rob Your Writing of Its Power — and cut’em!
Limit Prepositional Phrases
Prepositional phrases describe and explain — and they bloat your writing.
To shrink the fluff, substitute an adjective or adverb. Instead of “numbers are selected at random in a lottery,” shorten it to “lottery numbers are randomly selected.”
According to the Chicago Manual of Style, one preposition for every 10-15 words is plenty.
Use Power Words
Don’t try to make a weak word strong with adjectives and adverbs — use power words instead.
Power words energize your writing and inspire action.
If you’re a copywriter or content marketer, power words are gold.
13. Read It Out Loud and Backwards
Read your writing out loud. Listen to the flow and notice where you stumble.
Rework those areas.
To check for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors, read your writing backwards.
You’re forced to slow down and focus on each word. No skipping ahead or subconsciously filling in the blanks.
14. Make Friends with Your Editor
Most writers, especially beginner writers, are better at writing than editing.
An easy way to improve your writing skills is to hire a good editor.
Pick their brains, analyze their advice, and welcome their feedback. You may eventually cut them loose as an editor (but keep them as a friend).
15. Find a Writing Partner
Last but not least, find a writing group or partner.
Having fresh eyes and ears that tell you what’s hot and what’s not is invaluable as you improve your writing skills.
To paraphrase an African proverb:
“Go fast, go alone; go far, go together.”
How to Write a Rockstar Resume
Finally, remember when I said to research your audience so you can mirror their words? Well, that writing trick works for resumes too.
The secret to writing a rockstar resume is:
Notice what writing skills are listed on the job posting and mirror them on your resume-bullet-point style. Then prove you have the skill by highlighting your achievements with facts and numbers.
If the job post says:
SEO expert – develop writing and publishing with SEO best practices to maintain and improve SERP rankings,
Then you write:
As an SEO-certified content marketing expert, I oversaw the creation and publishing of 100+ blog posts; 40 of which ranked on Google page 1 for targeted keywords within 6 months.
Which Writing Skills Will You Work on First?
Well, there you have it.
Whether you want to become a freelance writer, write a viral blog post, or impress the boss, you’re determined to punch up your writing.
And now you know 15 different ways to improve 5 basic writing skills.
So, now it’s time to:
- choose two or three writing tips,
- practice, practice, practice,
- then rinse and repeat.
Commit to this writing improvement exercise regularly and you’ll be headed for success.
Go get ’em!