1. Brush Up on the Basics
Before you can start writing incredible content, you’ll need at least an intermediate understanding of the basic principles of writing.
This doesn’t mean you need to enroll in a prestigious creative writing programme at a top university, but you will need to know the basics of grammar and spelling. Every writer should have a copy of ProWritingAid, Writing Forward or another guide on their desktop, or a copy of English Grammar: 100 Tragically Common Mistakes, KS2 English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling or another such guide on their bookshelf, as these small but invaluable guides are some of the most comprehensive resources on the correct use of grammar and other helpful topics.
2. Write Like It’s Your Job
If you want to get better at something, you have to practise – and writing is no exception!
Unfortunately, there are few shortcuts that can transform you into an amazing writer overnight, and even the most talented writers had to learn their craft over a period of many years. It’s admitedly even harder to write while considering SEO and how to drive traffic to your post.
If you want to improve your writing skills, writing on a regular basis will not only diminish your fear of the blank page (or blinking cursor), it will also help you develop a unique style. So, even if nobody reads it, keep writing. Practice makes perfect.
3. Read Like It’s Your Job
The best writers are also keen readers, and reading on a regular basis is an easy way to start developing your writing skills. I don’t just mean blog posts, either – diversify your reading material. Expand your horizons to more challenging material than you typically read, and pay attention to sentence structure, word choice and how the material flows.
The more you read, the more likely you are to develop an eye for what makes a piece so effective and which mistakes to avoid.
4. Find a Writing Partner
If you work at a reasonably sized company, the chances are pretty good that there is at least one other person who is also wondering how to become a better writer. Although writing is typically considered a solitary activity, the best writers know when it’s time to get much-needed feedback on their work.
Talk to your coworkers (or friends) and ask someone if they’d be willing to cast an eye over your work – they may spot mistakes that you overlooked.
Finding a writing partner is also a great way to hold yourself accountable and keep going.
5. Join a Workshop or Take a Night Class
Most people balk at the idea of standing in front of a room full of strangers and baring their soul to the world, but joining a writing workshop can be immensely beneficial – and a lot of fun (if you manage to find a good one).
You don’t need to have an unfinished novel hidden away in your desk drawer to join a workshop. These days, content marketing meet-ups and professional development groups are becoming wildly popular. Join one of the many content marketing groups on LinkedIn to meet like-minded writers, or search for writing workshops near you on sites like Meetup. Pick a topic, write something, listen to the feedback of the group, then revise it. Rinse, repeat.
6. Dissect Writing That You Admire
Most people read the same blogs or sites on a regular basis because the material appeals to them – but fewer people understand why their favourite blogs are so appealing.
Find a handful of recent blog posts you really like, then print them out. Next, just like your high school English teacher did, take a red pen and highlight things you liked: certain sentences, turns of phrase, even entire paragraphs. Examine why you like these elements and see if there are any common threads in your favoured reading material. See how writers take one subject and transition into another. Apply these techniques to your own work.
7. Imitate Writers You Admire
Before we go any further, a disclaimer – imitation is not the same as plagiarism. Don’t rip off anyone’s work. Ever.
Just as you probably have a list of blogs you read often, you’ll likely also read the same writers on a regular basis. Identify what it is you enjoy about their work and see if you can use it to improve your writing skills. Does a writer you like use humour to spice up dry topics? Try it. Do they use pop culture references to make their work entertaining and useful? Try that too.
8. Remember That Outlines Are Your Friend
The blinking cursor of a blank page is a considerable foe, even for the most experienced writers. Before putting pen to proverbial paper, sketch out an outline of what you plan to write. This will be your battle plan, and it will help you win the war. Very few – and I do mean very few – writers sit down to write anything without a solid plan in mind.
An outline doesn’t have to be complex. A simple framework of which sections should appear in a particular order, along with a few sentences about what each section contains, may be enough. If the topic you’re tackling is a little more complex, your outline might have to be, too – but having an outline before you write is like having a roadmap in the glove box of your car before a road trip. If you start to feel lost, refer back to your outline and get back to kicking ass and taking names.
Let’s take a look at a real example:
Brief summary of the post
Section 1 – What is Brand Voice?
Paragraph(s) explaining the key principles behind brand voice (style, tone and messaging)
Examples of each
Section 2 – Developing Brand Voice with Content
Explanations of how to develop brand voice using content (written, visual, video)
Considerations for content producers/marketers to bear in mind when producing content (strategy, goals, overall brand messaging)
Section 3 – Examples of Content That Builds Brand Voice
Several examples (three or four) of content that aligns well with marketing positioning and branding of recognizable brands
This outline can become your latest post. The overarching structure keeps you on target.
9. Edit Your Work Ruthlessly
So, you’re writing every day (or regularly, at least), and you’re feeling more confident about your work. Awesome! Now you’re going to become your own harshest critic.
Editing is a tough skill to learn for beginner writers, because they place immense value on the time and effort they put into writing in the first place. However, a lot of writing is actually rewriting, and this is where the cold, hard eye of an editor will serve you well.
Develop the discipline as it takes time to eliminate extraneous words (more on this shortly). Resist the temptation to wax lyrically and get to the point. Not sure if a paragraph works? It probably doesn’t. Be tough on yourself, and know when to delete or rework something. Your work will be much stronger as a result.
10. Accept That First Drafts Are Almost Always Crap
The best writers make it look so easy. After reading a great post, it’s tempting to imagine your favourite bloggers effortlessly turn in incredible posts with minimal effort before spending the rest of their day reading obscure books in a quaint corner café somewhere. Take comfort in the knowledge that this isn’t how writing works.
First drafts are almost always crap, and that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t create a masterpiece on your first attempt – chances are, you probably won’t, and that’s okay too. Just get your ideas down on paper first, then go back and start cleaning up. Writing is a repetitive process, and even the best writers have to spend a lot of time reworking material they were probably too embarrassed to show anybody.
11. Find a Good (Patient) Editor
Whether you’re trying to make the case for a content strategy to your manager or want to start guest blogging on your favourite sites, finding and working with a good editor is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing skills. The best are those who show you why something doesn’t work, rather than just telling you that it doesn’t.
Allowing someone else to read your work can be brutally difficult for some writers, especially when they’re just starting out, but it’s crucial that you develop good habits from the outset and learn to accept constructive criticism about your work. Remember – writers are desperately needy creatures who need to be constantly reassured that they’re the creative geniuses they believe themselves to be, but you’ll need to develop a thick skin if you’re serious about your work, and a good editor is invaluable when it comes to toughening up.
12. Eliminate Unnecessary Words
Another common mistake among beginner writers (and some more experienced writers who should know better) is writing overly complex sentences in an attempt to “sound” more authoritative.
In many cases, shorter sentences can have a greater impact. You may have heard of a six-word story that was supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway, which reads, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Whether Hemingway wrote this or not is irrelevant – the power of these six words shows that brevity can be a powerful tool when used correctly, and not every sentence needs to be overwrought to get your point across.
13. Take a Stroll Down Memory Lane
Writing should be fun, and along with the thrill of seeing your byline for the first time, seeing how far you’ve progressed is one of the most satisfying parts of being a writer. Every now and then (but not too often), re-read your earlier work and marvel at how much better you are now than you were then. Pat yourself on the back. You’ve worked hard, so don’t be shy – congratulate yourself.
14. Don’t Be Afraid to Say What You Think
Most content on the web is bland and dreadfully boring. This is because far too many bloggers focus on regurgitating the same news as everybody else without bothering to add their own opinions. Obviously you don’t want to fall foul of libel laws, but that doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) say what you think.
Once you’ve started to discover your own “voice”, don’t be shy about sharing your opinions. This makes for more interesting reading. Don’t be contrary for its own sake, and don’t set out to purposefully piss anyone off, but make sure there’s enough of you in your writing to make it a worthwhile read for your audience.
15. Do Your Research
Aside from plagiarizing someone else’s work, nothing will undermine your credibility faster than failing to do your homework.
In their eagerness to be done with a blog post (or even major newspaper article), many writers try to take shortcuts with the facts. This can range from accidentally fudging a statistic out of haste to being lazy when it comes to sourcing or attribution. Not only can this land you in big trouble with your editor/content marketing manager/other boss-type person, it also makes you look like an amateur.
Everybody makes mistakes, and you don’t need to spend weeks cross-referencing every last statistic (see the next tip), but common sense should prevail here – don’t rely exclusively on sites like Wikipedia, and use current, primary sources whenever possible.
16. Remember Done Is Better than Perfect
You should definitely take the time to write as well as you can, proofread and edit your work thoroughly, and ensure that your piece flows logically from one point to the next.
However, this doesn’t mean you should take weeks to write something.
No piece of writing will ever be perfect – you have to know when it’s time to let it go. This is especially important in content marketing, because you’ll rarely (if ever) have the luxury of crafting agonizingly beautiful blog posts full of poignant sentences and evocative imagery. As you become more confident, the “writing” part of writing will become easier and faster, but never lose sight of the fact that deadlines, or editorial calendars, are just as much your masters as any boss or manager.
Summary: How to Improve Your Writing Skills
- Brush up on the basic principles of writing, grammar and spelling.
- Write like it’s your job and practise regularly.
- Read more so you develop an eye for what effective writing looks like.
- Find a partner. Ask them to read your writing and provide feedback.
- Join a workshop, meetup or take a writing night class.
- Take the time to analyze writing you admire.
- Imitate writers you admire.
- Outline your writing.
- Edit your writing.
- Accept that first drafts are often bad and revise.
- Find an editor who demonstrates patience.
- Eliminate unnecessary words from your writing.
- Review your earlier work and see how you’ve grown.
- Don’t be afraid to say what you mean in what you write.
- Make sure you do adequate research on your topic.
- Don’t delay writing – get it done now.
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