5 stupidly simple ways to improve your writing

improve your writing

Word count: 667 words

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Have you ever struggled with how to improve your writing? Here are five ideas so simple you may kick yourself for not having used them before now….

When I was a senior editor at a daily newspaper, I occasionally used to edit a journalist who had terrific story ideas. Much of his work ended up on the front page of the newspaper. He won awards, too. Lots of them.  But he was a terrible writer.

He expressed his ideas in the most boring, repetitive ways. He didn’t understand how to manage his own voice and, as a result, he often sounded clunky and inept. Worse, he was so defensive that he would never listen to any editor. He clung to his own notions as if he were a two-year-old protecting a cherished toy. Even the most diligent editors will eventually give up, as we did with him.

He thought he won. If only he understood how much he’d lost.

I always found it was very sad because he had the potential to be a first-rate writer, rather than just a mediocre one.

Don’t let the same thing happen to you! Here are five stupidly simple ways you can improve your own writing.

  1. Spend more time on it. Writing doesn’t happen by accident. It’s like running. Or playing piano. Or cooking. You have to do a lot of it – mindfully – to get really good at it. That said, you also have to ensure you don’t fear the time commitment itself. Know that it’s possible to start with five minutes a day. I’m a big believer in the Kaizen technique. When you become serious, you’ll need at least 30 minutes a day. But start with five.
  2. Read more good writing. Writers I coach are often surprised when I ask them what they’re reading. This isn’t just friendly chitchat. I want to ensure that they’re reading excellent writing – the type they’d be proud to produce themselves. This is important because we all unconsciously emulate the style of the writers we read. Read dreck and you will write dreck. Read top-notch work and your own writing will improve. And, for bonus points, start copying.
  3. Spend more time thinking before you write. It’s idiotic for us to sit in front of our screens and stare at them until beads of blood form on our foreheads. This is no way to write! Go for a walk. Mindmap. Step away from the desk. Willpower alone is not enough to make words appear on the page. We first need to figure out what we want to say.  (My course Extreme Writing Makeover explores this idea in depth.)
  4. Schedule “incubation” time. Before you can fulfill the important job of being your own best editor, you need some protected time away from your work. Have you scheduled this? Think about the way a typical student approaches writing (procrastinating, dilly-dallying and writing the whole damn thing the night before it’s due) and you’ll understand how difficult it is to guarantee incubation – time when your writing sits quietly, undisturbed, in your desk or on your hard drive. This is why I always recommend that writers schedule their tasks the same day they receive the assignment (whether from work or school) and plan ahead for the incubation.
  5. Read your writing aloud. Reading your own writing – aloud – is an essential part of the writing process. Back when I worked in newspapers, I was the crazy woman sitting at her desk talking to herself. (Well, whispering. There were about 100 of us in one gigantic open-area office and everyone else could see and hear what I was doing.) Reading aloud is so important because it allows you to hear and improve the rhythm of your writing. More than that, it’s the only way to ensure that you’re reading slowly enough to perform a meaningful edit. When we’ve written something, we know what we intended to say. It takes a slow, careful reading to ensure our execution matches our intent. 

Writing can be hard work. But we make it harder on ourselves by not addressing the small, stupidly simple things that can turn it into something much easier.

How do you work to improve your writing? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

By the way, I’m making my coaching schedule more flexible over the summer so see here if you want to learn more.

Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Posted June 11th, 2013 in Power Writing

  • Kathleen Baldwin

    Thanks Daphne! I loved this article. Another author and I were just discussing the importance of this at lunch yesterday. Just want to say Amen. I tweeted it.

  • Kathy Widenhouse

    Great post, Daphne! Easy fixes can yield the biggest rewards in improving our writing. Here are 5 more: http://www.nonprofitcopywriter.com/copywriting-fixes.html

  • Rhyme79

    I hereby propose the word of the day to be ‘dreck’. All those in favour say “aye!”

    Dreck is a new word to me, it’s a great expression though isn’t it. It feels nice in the mouth.

    This post is useful, but my particular flavour of problem is that I spend too much time thinking and planning, and find it difficult to actually get a first draft out. Do you have any advice Daphne?

    (Also, thanks for the introduction to the Kaizen technique, I think that’s just the thing I need. I’m going to read up then give it a go).

    • Aye! I really like the word “dreck” as well! Re: getting your first draft out, Rhyme79, why are you having difficulty? Here are some thoughts: Are you editing WHILE you write? Have you made the stakes too high — imagining that a single piece of writing is more important than it really is? Are you talking to yourself too much (and saying mainly negative things such as “my writing will never be good enough!”) There are many reasons why you could be having a tough time. It’s worth taking a few moments to try to figure out why. Hope this helps!

      • Rhyme79

        Thanks for replying Daphne.

        I’ve worked on being able to resist editing until later. I don’t do that anymore! What you mentioned about negative self-talk though, I think that’s maybe the root of it. I do have perfectionist tendencies which I feel I’m constantly fighting. I tell myself that it’s a draft, so by definition it will be far from how I want it to be. Yet I wonder if that feeling of “it won’t be very good” (it’ll be dreck (; ) is creeping in and making it difficult for me to stop planning and start writing. Hopefully it being within my consciousness will help me knock it on its annoying little head now!

        Don’t get me wrong, I can knock out a draft, but I find it much easier when it’s a piece that doesn’t require much work prior to the writing. For example, I am able to write quite substantial and structured message board/forum posts without any problem, but something like an essay that requires planning will find me struggling to stop planning/researching and move onto just getting it out onto the page.

        I’m sure I’m the not only person with this problem, am I? At least I hope it’s not just me! The psychology of writing is quite interesting isn’t it?!

        Anyway, I’ve subscribed now. Thanks.

        • Here’s another tip to try: Next time you need to write something big or scary, write your first draft in the body of an email. This may convince your linear logical brain that you’re writing something that “doesn’t require much work.” Then, when you’ve finished, copy and paste the text into a Word document.

          A different idea: Look for a shoulder angel for yourself:

          http://www.publicationcoach.com/do-you-have-a-shoulder-angel/

          • Rhyme79

            I like the email idea, I shall try it the next time I’m freaking out on getting a first draft down, so thanks for that. I haven’t read the ‘shoulder angel’ article yet, but it’s now on my ‘read it later’ list. Thanks so much for your advice Daphne, I appreciate it. 🙂

  • TessaEdin

    The tip #2 about reading more good writing helps much more than the other. You get to know what is good writing, you start imitating it and in the process you create your own good writing.

    As to thinking and planning, I usually skip this step. I just write what I feel like writing because when I think too much I tend to overdramatize. And I don’t like drama.

    However, I do think about such elements as setting, characters and what kind of feeling I’d like my readers to have. I used this article from customwritingcompany.com to get greater insight into how to write creatively. Also, all your tips except #3 and 4 work for me.

    P.S. Thanks for sharing.