By Dan Shewan
Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a marketer quite like being asked to write a blog post. Some marketers would rather wrestle with pivot tables (or grizzly bears) for days on end than write a blog post – but why?
With content marketing shaping up as one of the most important marketing skills to have on your resume, getting a handle on writing could really benefit your career as well as the obvious benefit of increasing traffic to your company’s site.
Writing is intimidating to a lot of people, particularly those who don’t write for a living or on a regular basis. The good news is that writing doesn’t have to be agonizing, and almost anybody can improve their writing skills with a little discipline and a willingness to learn. Here are 16 ways you can start improving your writing skills right now.
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 program at an Ivy league university, but you will need to know the basics of grammar and spelling. Every writer should have a copy of “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White on their bookshelf, as this small but invaluable book is one 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 practice – 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 also secretly harbors a desire 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, and 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 favorite 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 favored reading material. See how writers take one subject and transition into another. Apply these techniques to your own work.
Let’s take a look at a particularly powerful (and memorable piece) from Copyblogger that serves as a great example of this.
Immediately, you’re hooked by Morris’ opening. You can’t not read to see what happens next. The pacing is excellent, it grabs your attention, and best of all, it keeps you reading. This piece was first published back in June, and I still remember it. Read the full post here, and see how Morris masterfully tells the story of a band named Death and how this relates to writing content.
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 humor to spice up dry topics? Try it. Do they use pop culture references to make their work entertaining and useful? Try that, too.
When I first started writing, I imitated some of my favorite nonfiction writers and essayists, such as Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Bill Bryson. I also attempted (and failed) to imitate writers such as Dave Eggers and Dan Kennedy, but soon realized that I wasn’t funny enough and gave it up. Over time, I eventually developed my own style, but reading the works of these writers and seeing how they constructed their essays and books was immensely helpful to me as a writer (see tip #3).
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 – one of my own outlines:
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 eventually became my recent post about brand voice. I deviated from my initial outline slightly, but the overarching structure was always there to keep me 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 it takes 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 isn’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 favorite bloggers effortlessly turning 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 an iterative 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 favorite sites, finding and working with a good editor is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing skills. I’ve worked with dozens of editors over the years, and in my experience, 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.
Let’s look at another real example from one of my posts – my very first post for WordStream, as it happens. This lengthy sentence is a prime candidate for a ruthless red pen, even if my lame jokes were intended to give it a little more flavor. I’ve edited the sentence to show you how you could edit a similar line in your own work (additions italicized).
“Whether you’re a newcomer to AdWords or have been running PPC campaigns for years, you’ve probably given a great deal of thought to about which keywords will result in more clicks and higher conversions – not to mention that vacation home in Lake Tahoe you’ve been dreaming about.”
13. Take a Stroll Down Memory Lane
I’ve been writing professionally, in one way or another, for the past ten years. When I look back at my early work, which I do every so often, it literally makes me cringe. I don’t do this because I’m a masochist, but to remind myself how far I’ve come.
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 afoul 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 contrarian 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.
As for me, I’m going to take my own advice and call this post done. I hope you find these tips useful, no matter how long you’ve been writing.
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 practice 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.
Originally from the U.K., Dan Shewan is a journalist and web content specialist who now lives and writes in New England. Dan’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Pacific Standard magazine, The Independent, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.