25 Ways to Boost Your Writing Skills
Some say good writing can’t be taught. We beg to differ. Here are 25 surefire ways to boost your skills and become a master of communication.
1. Learn more verbs.
Verbs are one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox. Consider the following sentence, from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“If you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kid paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way?”
Have you ever heard the word “thrill” used this way? I haven’t. Dillard uses it as an intransitive verb here and it makes a world of difference. There are some nice adjectives too—“tremulous” and “rueful”—but it’s “thrill” that surprises and fascinates us because it’s rare to see a verb used in an unexpected way. It’s worth noting, too, that she doesn’t reach for the fanciest term in the book; instead, she piques our interest by using a word we’re already familiar with in an unfamiliar way.
Here’s another example:
“A host of clouds fleeced the summer sky.”
Who knew “fleece” could be a verb? Amusement aside, consider how much more concise the sentence is than the following one:
“The clouds looked like fleece in the summer sky.”
2. Get friendly with the dash.
The em-dash is one of the most underused punctuation marks we have at our disposal. It is also one of the most useful. Here are several ways to give it more love:
You can use an em-dash to insert peripheral—but not parenthetic—information.
You can use an em-dash to add thoughts to the end of a sentence for greater emphasis—as long as they are relevant.
You can use an em-dash to avoid littering your sentence with commas, which is to say that variety in punctuation is a good thing—even if each mark serves more or less the same purpose.
3. Minimise use of the object “it” and the verb “to be.”
One of the least efficient verbs in the English language is the verb “to be.” Consider the following passage:
“Because computer technology is so recent, it is hard to not constantly compare it to the previous technology which we are so used to: the printed book. It is hard to accept the difference between feeling the pages, touching the paper, and reading the story from front to back. But now it is possible to have animation illustrating the text, sound highlighting the actions, and different options for the sequence of the text.”
If you go through with a pen and underline the primary object and verb in each sentence, you’ll see that “it” (object) and “is” (verb) heavily dominate the text. Try to avoid this pattern in your writing and you’ll start seeing vast improvements, fast.
4. Reach the end before you reach for perfection.
I always hated “sloppy copies” and “drafts” because it means more work, but believe me, it’s worth the extra effort. Striving for perfection as you write, sentence by sentence, not only slows down the overall process but also threatens the coherence of your work. If you’re focusing on each line as you go, it’s harder to see the big picture, which means your thoughts are going to get muddled along the way.
5. Consider the reader.
Cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg has said that the primary psychological difference between a “novice” writer and an advanced writer is an awareness of one’s audience. What he means is that, once you’ve learned to write well for yourself, the next step is to consider how someone else might interpret what you’re writing and try to anticipate any missteps in communication that could arise. This requires attention to details like word choice, grammar and syntax, and the level of logic reflected in your writing structure. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
6. Aim for efficiency and precision.
There’s no reason to slow your reader down with the extra syllable in “utilise” if you can just write “use,” especially since the difference in meaning between the two words is negligible. On the other hand, don’t write “beautiful” when you really mean “alluring,” “resplendent,” or “elegant.”
7. Avoid nominalisations.
Nominalisations are terms that are presented as nouns but could operate more efficiently as verbs. Here’s an example:
The Federalists’ argument in regard to the destabilisation of government by popular democracy was based on their belief in the tendency of factions to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good.
This sentence is unclear because most of the actions are nouns, not verbs: argument, destabilisation, belief, tendency.
A more efficient version is as follows:
The Federalists argued that popular democracy destabilised government, because they believed that factions tended to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good.
This sentence is clear because all the actions are verbs: argued, destabilised, believed, tended.
8. Outline your ideas before putting them together.
To save yourself time in the long run, work out your ideas before you start writing. Doing so helps you make sense of both the larger message and the way each section serves it.
9. Write a thesis statement but don’t include it.
The purpose of a thesis statement is twofold: to prepare your audience for the argument you are about to make, and to help you clarify your own thoughts. If you can articulate, in one sentence, what the main point of your essay, story, poem, etc. is—then you can use it as a path to follow while writing. When we don’t know what we’re trying to communicate, we tend to stray off the main path and confuse ourselves as well as our readers.
10. Ask someone else to read your work.
Once you’ve finished your first draft, turn it over to someone else to read. Ask for as much feedback as possible, and don’t be afraid to explain your intentions and goals so that your reader can help you determine whether you’ve accomplished them or not.
11. Make communication your ultimate goal.
This includes being precise. Say what you mean and mean what you say. People will think you’re smart not if you use fancy words but if you communicate your thoughts clearly and succinctly.
12. Read, read, read, read, read.
The best way to learn how to write well is through osmosis. I guarantee you would notice an immediate improvement in your skills if you were to pick up a book and read it all the way through right now. The brain is learning even when you aren’t conscious of it.
13. Try your hand at different genres.
Poetry teaches concision. Fiction exercises the imagination. Nonfiction demands careful consideration of narrative structure. All of these skills aid one another. Even if you don’t think a particular genre is your cup of tea, give it a shot to see how it might inform the challenges of your preferred genre.
14. Take breaks and give yourself time.
Writing is hard. Cognitive scientists have determined it’s harder than learning a musical instrument or playing in an expert chess tournament. If you think you’re no good at it, consider that it’s actually very taxing for anyone’s brain. Don’t try to tear through a project or assignment in one go. The more time you give yourself to step back, reflect, rework—the better the end result will be.
15. Kill all your darlings (or most of them).
In a way, Faulkner was right: If you’re holding tight to a certain word or line or passage for its own sake and not for the sake of the overall piece, give it the boot. But don’t take his advice too literally; we all have our moments of brilliance, and there’s no shame in letting them shine.
16. Don’t be afraid to change your mind.
One way you’ll know when you’ve become a decent writer is that you won’t be afraid to change your mind about major aspects of your work. You might even find that your second draft is completely unrecognisable compared to your first. But that’s good—your work will change shape, sometimes drastically, if you’re being honest with yourself.
17. Do your research.
Readers can tell whether you’ve taken the time to get to know your subject. And they appreciate it. Even if you’re writing from personal experience or just flexing your imagination, and don’t think you need to consult the facts, it’s worth seeing what other people have written on the topic so that you can ensure your message is original.
18. Save surface details for the end.
Don’t even think about perfecting things like grammar and punctuation until the final draft. Don’t even concern yourself with sentence fluency or word choice until you’ve at least churned out the first. Getting hung up on such things early on will only distract you from what’s important in the early stages: ideas.
19. Consider the “psychological geography” of a sentence.
In Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams writes about the “psychological geography” of a sentence. Just as we look at the first few words of a sentence for point of view, he says, we look at the last few words for special emphasis. You can manipulate a sentence to emphasize particular words that you want readers to hear stressed and thereby note as particularly significant.
20. Shift peripheral ideas to the left.
Don’t write, “The data offered to prove ESP are too weak for the most part.”
Write, “For the most part, the data offered to prove ESP are too weak.”
21. Shift new information to the right.
Don’t write, “Questions about the ethics of withdrawing intravenous feeding are more difficult than [something just mentioned].”
Write, “More difficult than [something just mentioned] are questions about the ethics of withdrawing intravenous feeding.”
22. Stay aware of your own communicative assumptions.
“The single biggest problem in communication,” said George Bernard Shaw, “is the illusion that it has taken place.” We often mistakenly assume that our readers know more about the background, context, and details of a concept or scenario than they actually do. Even if it feels like you’re explaining what you already know to yourself, it’s worth the extra bit of effort to make your readers feel informed and ready to receive your message in as clear a way as possible.
23. Ask for feedback in the middle, not at the end.
Sharing incomplete work might sound like an odd practice, but in creative settings it’s a good idea because it encourages feedback that is focused on developing an idea rather than evaluating it at the end.
24. Talk about your writing with others.
I get it—you’re a writer, not a talker. You may even be superstitious about sharing your ideas with someone else before they’re fully formed. But writing and speaking engage different parts of the brain, and engaging different parts of the brain to communicate the same idea helps you understand that idea on a deeper level. If you can explain your writing goals to someone else, you have a better shot at achieving them once you sit down to do the work.
25. Don’t be afraid of writing—it doesn’t bite.
Some of us are more comfortable putting pen to paper than others. Like anything, it becomes easier with practice. But the fact of the matter is, we all know how to communicate. Some of us are even great conversationalists, and that skill can be transferred to the page. Once you start thinking of writing as just another form of communication, it becomes less intimidating because the goal changes: you’re no longer trying to sound smart; you’re trying to make another person understand.