Improvement is an endless endeavour that takes time and dedication. You can, however, accelerate the development process with the right insights. Here, I’ll list ten tips that helped me improve my writing and can do the same for yours.
1. Learn the rules of grammar and then break them
If you already know proper grammar, that’s great; the education system hasn’t failed you. But some of us begin writing with only a basic or instinctual understanding and must learn the rest along the way.
The first course in my university degree was called ‘writing good prose’ and involved becoming a competent grammarian. Whether producing fiction or factual work, grammar is the adhesive that holds the words together, and good grammatical glue will make your writing stronger.
Once you know the rules, feel free to break them. Sometimes perfect grammar doesn’t fit the intent of a sentence, especially in fiction, and rebelling against what’s good and proper can enhance a piece. Learn the rules, know when to break them, and your writing will prosper.
2. Use active voice
Using active voice produces more engaging content. Shall we test this assertion? More engaging content is produced by using active voice. Which sentence sounds stronger? You’re welcome to disagree, but the first sentence is more compelling to read. The second example uses passive voice, sacrifices the strong ‘produces’ verb for a weaker ‘is’, and has the subject, ‘content’, being acted upon by the object, ‘active voice’.
Passive voice does, of course, have its place and purpose. In some situations, an active sentence may not read right, or you’re unable to identify another suitable subject, so switching to passive makes more sense. Additionally, passive voice can produce certain effects that may be desired. Therefore, as long as you’re aware of your usage, you should choose the voice that best suits the occasion.
3. Use strong nouns and verbs
A complete sentence can’t exist without a noun and a verb, and your writing will improve if you focus on making solid word choices. Subject nouns lead your sentences, and you should always aim to start strong. Additionally, overuse of the ‘to be’ verbs—are, am, is, was, were, been, being—produces bland work, and you should seek to replace them with something stronger whenever possible.
Once your nouns and verbs are in order, you can sprinkle in some adjectives and adverbs for flavour. Some writers say you should limit your use of adverbs, specifically those ending in -ly, but, in my opinion, that’s nonsense. Yes, you shouldn’t stuff your work with these words, and you shouldn’t allow them to weaken your verbs choices, but adverbs add flavour. Avoiding them in writing is like not using salt in the kitchen. With that said, too many adverbs could make your writing too salty, and no one wants that.
4. Vary sentence structures
Writing reads better when sentences vary. Your work will feel robotic if you only use single clause sentences. You may have noticed this already. The first six sentences of this section contain only one clause each. It might feel like you’re reading a list. Good prose requires variety.
Variation is the key to creating good flow, and a strong paragraph presents an assortment of sentences that read well and create a rhythm for the reader. Examine any well-written work, and you’ll notice diversity everywhere, including in word choices, sentence structures, and paragraph lengths. Creating a natural flow is crucial to crafting engaging content, and your readers will—often subconsciously—appreciate the effort.
5. Avoid repetition
Repetition weakens sentences when repetition occurs too often, but sometimes repetition is difficult to avoid. Sure, the sentence makes sense, but repeating the same word so often creates an awkward and distracting experience for the reader.
Ideally, you should also avoid repeating the same words in adjacent sentences. However, we don’t live in an ideal world, and sometimes the right word is the one you’ve already used. Repeating a word is better than swapping it with a clumsy synonym, so don’t stress if you can’t find a good replacement unit of language.
6. Edit ruthlessly
First drafts are always terrible. You may feel as though you’re writing pure poetry, but the illusion shatters during the first edit.
When it comes to editing, diligence and savagery are key. If a word choice feels off, replace it with something more appropriate. If a sentence doesn’t read right, tinker until it does. If a paragraph doesn’t flow, rework it until it reads nicely. If a scene, sentence, or anything else doesn’t fit, wipe it from existence.
Often, we have time constraints attached to our writing, and perfection, even if it were possible, isn’t feasible. You should, however, seek to make each piece as flawless as possible in the time allowed, and editing with an iron fist will help you achieve this goal.
7. Find your writer type
While two distinct writer types do exist, most people are a combination of both. Traditionally, you’re either a discovery writer or an outliner. George RR Martin provides the more flavourful labels of gardener and architect, but both pairs hold the same meanings.
Discovery writers meet the page with little forethought and prefer to let the work develop as they write. Clearly, this approach isn’t ideal for non-fiction pieces where planning is important, but some people outline more than others.
The discovery approach makes the work feel fresh and allows writers to surprise themselves more often. As someone who predominantly uses this method, I believe you should at least have an ending in mind so you know where you’re going. You should enjoy the journey, but arriving at a satisfying destination is also important.
In contrast, outliners plan the major plot points and character arcs and anything else they feel they should know before hitting the page. Levels of outlining vary, from rough dot points to rich worldbuilding documents that rival the end product in size and scope.
Outlined narratives are tight, coherent, and often contain satisfying twists, turns, and conclusions. However, some people who attempt thorough outlining report less enjoyment in the writing process because they feel as though they’ve already experienced the story.
As mentioned, most of us are part discovery writer and part outliner, part gardener and part architect, and finding the balance that suits your personality is the key to a pleasurable and productive writing experience. Experimentation is important, and you shouldn’t avoid one technique because you assume it’s incompatible with your style. Try both methods, and you might surprise yourself with what works for you.
8. Write every day
Consistency is the key to success. To develop a skill, you need to train it regularly, and, if you’re serious about writing, you should aim to sit down each day and put something on the page. Even if you can only spare ten minutes, every word is a step closer to competence. Every year of consistent output is a step closer to mastery. Every failure is a step closer to success.
A commitment to consistency means you’re constantly producing, continually improving, and frequently avoiding one of the biggest causes of writer’s block: neglecting to sit down and start the work.
If you plan to make writing a career, you must be able to perform on command. Generally, Monday to Thursday I’m doing paid work, and I can’t let myself procrastinate; otherwise, I won’t have money coming in, and my obligations will bleed into the weekend.
Friday, if I’m on schedule, is fiction day. I’ll work on a novel or short story, whatever I happen to have brewing at the time. Finally, over the course of the weekend, I’ll snatch small pockets of time to write content for my website and other projects.
As you can see, if I didn’t train myself to write consistently, one missed day could bring my entire week to ruin. Building good habits may be difficult in the beginning, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
9. Seek feedback and criticism
Often, when we first start writing, we avoid criticism, which is fine in the beginning. However, if you’re serious about the craft, you’ll eventually have to show your work to others and seek honest feedback. I was fortunate to have studied writing at university, which meant my work received constant criticism from teachers and peers. You can, however, get the feedback you need without enrolling in an expensive and lengthy degree.
When you’re ready to seek criticism, you should assemble a selection of people who’re willing to read your work and offer advice. Choose readers, people who’re interested in and understand good writing, and you should aim for at least one professional writer on your team. At the very least, you need someone who’ll notice things the average reader might not. The more feedback you get, the quicker you’ll improve.
10. Read more
Reading is an excellent way to enhance your writing. Read widely and often, and you’ll absorb book-loads of valuable information you can apply to your own work.
Some people report writing out the prose of their favourite authors—sometimes entire novels—by hand to familiarise themselves with a particular style. While I’ve never done this myself, I can see how the practice could help transfer concepts of technique from the page to the practitioner. Nonetheless, you can gather valuable insights and shape your own style simply by reading.
11. Hire a good editor (bonus)
If you need something expertly edited for publication or require feedback on a piece, you could hire a professional editor. I have experience editing everything from professional copy to more casual works of fact and fiction, and my consistent commitment to the craft has helped me hone my writing skills.
Contact me to engage the services of an expert editor and ensure your work is the best it can be.