Writing is a skill like any other.
It’s relatively easy to bang out a few sentences, but it’s much harder to learn how to write well.
Becoming a writer doesn’t necessarily mean sitting down to pen the great novel, but it is work.
Here are nine simple writing tips that helped me improve the quality of my sentences and write every day:
1. Keep a Journal
Keeping a journal is a great way of cultivating a habit of writing every day. I use a journal to record daily observations about what I’m doing, reading, planning or struggling with.
In my journal, I record ideas about things I’d like to write and impressions about experiences I’ve had or would like to have.
I write entries three to four times a week in a password protected file on my computer. This way, I feel like I’ve more free rein and don’t have to worry about the contents being read by others.
A journal is a private thing, after all.
Some journal entries are only one or two lines long. My shortest entry simply reads “Exhausted”.
Did I mention I have two small children?
Others run several paragraphs or even pages in length.
If you like journal writing, I recommend reading The Journals of John Cheever.
2. Keep a Notebook
A notebook is somewhat different to a journal in that it’s less personal and more related to one’s work. Leonardo da Vinci kept hundreds of notebooks, pages, sketches and doodles about of his work, many of which survive to this day.
The maestro made a lifelong habit out of keeping a notebook with him. In his notebook, he recorded everything from idea for inventions to observations about nature and the stars.
He wasn’t the only one.
The famous children’s author Roald Dahl famously said about his ideas, “You work it out and play around with it. You doodle… you make notes… it grows, it grows…”.
So, Dahl got out of the car and wrote a single word with his finger in the dirt caked to his vehicle. This was enough for Dahl to remember his idea and continue working on his story later on.
Today, it’s easier than ever to keep a portable and accessible notebook.
I find it helpful to:
- Text myself ideas and notes
- Use apps like Simplenote or Notes on iOS
- Use Evernote to keep an archive of images I like
3. Write in Short Bursts
I try to write fiction and non-fiction everyday.
It doesn’t always work out this way, but the best days are the ones where I succeed.
It’s far more productive to write for 15 or 30 minutes regularly than it is to write for several hours every other Sunday.
This is because:
- It gets me into the habit of sitting down to write every day.
- The thoughts of writing for several hours is far more intimidating than the thoughts of sitting down to write for just half an hour.
- The more often I write, the more I want to write. The less often I write, the less interest I have in writing.
- One good day of writing erases several bad days of writing.
4. Read Widely and Deeply
The internet casts a wide net around the world’s information whereas books cast a deeper net around a particular subject or theme.
As a reader and writer, it’s worthwhile exploring both.
I gravitate between reading fiction and non-fiction books and I tend to have at least one of each on my digital and physical bedside tables. I normally read paperbacks on the bus or train and Kindle ebooks late at night.
This way, if I am struggling with one book, I can switch to the other without feeling like reading is a chore. And if I am struggling with both books, I can read a fun blog post on my phone.
If I reach page fifty of a book and I am still bored, I put the book down altogether. There are just too many good books to justify slogging through an unenjoyable read.
I make the occasional exception for books related to work or books I am expected to read.
Annotating text is a good way of getting to grips with information and marking it for future use.
I use my Kindle to underline key phrases and to record observations about important passages.
This way, when I’m finished the book I can quickly find said paragraphs or ideas on my computer. I recently read Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach. They write extensively about how companies can source and create great content.
I highlighted key passages in my ebook because I want to write a blog post about how to generate content. Now, I will be able to find and cite these content experts when I write my post.
If you are curious about the Kindle, you can read my review.
6. Avoid Text Speak
Social media sites and even emails are a hotbed of poorly constructed sentences and shortened words. I’m not a grammar Nazi but a well-formed sentence is a thing of beauty.
When writing an email or social media post, it’s worth taking the extra minute or two to consider how it’s phrased and check for spelling and grammar errors. It makes communication between the sender and the recipient easier.
After the Deadline can help.
If you feel you don’t have the time for this, consider shortening the length of your emails and posts.
Most people don’t like reading emails or social media posts beyond several sentences in length anyway.
There’s even a charter about it.
7. Let Articles Gestate
I write in advance and let my finished articles and stories sit in a physical or virtual filing cabinet for a week or two.
This gives me time to cast a fresh eye over my work and remove clichés (there’s one!) and other typos. It also gives me time to expand, clarify or condense my points and sentences.
8. Made a Mistake? Find it, Fix it and Move On
Although I can write quickly, I still make grammar and spelling errors. Most professional writers do and a typical media organisation employs a team of sub-editors, whose job it is to proof and prepare their copy for publication.
I read longer blog posts pieces out loud, I read them backwards and I read each sentence with a blank piece of paper covering the subsequent sentences. I also keep a list of mistakes I make regularly.
Occasionally, I ask friends or colleagues to proof my work. I also take time to review older pieces of digital content and update or remove errors, which I may have missed.
Sometimes errors get past me but the more I write, the less likely I am repeat my mistakes.
9. Get Feedback
Feedback is the best way to mature as a writer. After spending several hours, days or even longer on a piece of work, it is difficult to see the good from the bad.
It’s worth asking a trusted colleague, friend or family member for feedback. An ideal critic will give honest feedback. They will not simply say, they love/hate everything about your work.
When receiving feedback, it’s a good idea to keep quiet throughout (granted, not an easy thing).
A reader doesn’t normally have the writer standing behind them explaining what this and that means. The words on the page should explain the point better than any verbal commentary.
I was a member of a creative writing and non-fiction group for several years. Here are a few of our rules about giving and receiving feedback:
- Start by saying what you like about the piece.
- Pick out and explore key sentences or ideas.
- Consider several points of concern or issues with the piece.
- Discuss how to strengthen these weaknesses.
- Avoid getting into an argument with the writer.
- Finish by saying something positive about the piece.
- If you are the recipient, please save clarifying questions till the end of the group discussion.