Although it may be difficult for someone who makes a living from words to fathom, not everybody enjoys writing. In fact, some people actively despise it; they find it difficult, time-consuming and, in many cases, boring. You might even be sceptical about writing in general; after all, much like the algebra you learnt in school, when will you ever need to utilise your writing skills?
Well, for many employers, it’s now actually a highly desirable competency. Businesses are seeking to recruit employees with strong communication skills and, unfortunately for the word-averse among you, this includes being able to write. For students, there's no escaping the art of writing, either: no matter what you are studying, you will still have to submit an academic paper at some point.
Luckily, you don’t need to panic just yet. While you should have a basic level of writing competency, nobody is expecting you to produce Shakespearesque exposition on a daily basis. For beginners or those who feel their writing could use a bit of improvement, though, we’ve compiled a short list of tips and tricks to help you better your penmanship.
So, if you have trouble composing anything longer than a tweet, read on. Good writers always pay attention to the following!
1. Understand Basic Grammar
The most basic thing you need to get right in any form of writing, from the simplest work memo to the most complex novel, is grammar and spelling. You could be making a very valid point, but if your sentences read poorly and there are words spelt incorrectly, people will just give up and ignore what you have to say.
It’s not a case of pedantry, either – a simple grammatical error can dramatically change the entire context of a sentence. Take this lesson in the importance of full stops, for example: ‘I have an hour to kill. Someone come and see me.’ is a seemingly innocuous invite for a quick social get-together. ‘I have an hour to kill someone come and see me’ is an altogether more threatening proposition…
If you struggle with spelling or if English isn’t your strong point, don’t worry. There are many free online tools such as Grammarly that can help you out. Additionally, take the time to learn key grammar points that often trip people up, such as the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. With a little bit of care and attention, your writing can improve drastically.
2. Actually Write Something
This might sound strange, but anyone who’s ever sat down and stared at a blank word document for nearly an hour – typing out sentences and then deleting them – has probably experienced writer’s block in some shape or form. Not to be confused with procrastination, it usually occurs when the author is completely devoid of inspiration.
Writer’s block isn’t something that is only restricted to professional writers, either; anyone can get it, regardless of whether you’re a stressed-out college student or Stephen King. The key is to just get your ideas out of your head and onto the page, even if they are incoherent and make little sense to you at the time. This is known as submitting a ‘vomit’ draft and it keeps you ticking over until your brain is ready to turn your work into something smoother and more readable.
Don’t be afraid to throw random sentences and ideas onto the page and then come back to them later; this is often the only way to get through writer’s block.
3. Give it Structure
Within writing, the structure is hugely important. There is nothing more frustrating than reading something that is inconsistent, messy and disjointed, even if the actual content of the piece is useful and interesting. Structure brings everything together and allows your writing to flow, moving logically from one point to another.
After you’ve gotten down on paper what it is you’re actually trying to convey, don’t just move on. Read back through what you’ve written and ask yourself if it is coherent and free-flowing; try not to focus on each individual sentence – look at how it blends together as a whole. Read it aloud to yourself and listen to how it sounds: does it sound monotonous and repetitive? Have you used the same words over and over? Is there a good variation in the lengths of the sentences?
Remember: whatever the subject or format that you’re dealing with, try and structure it in a way that makes it logical, streamlined and easy to read.
4. Keep the Purpose in Mind
Regardless of whether you’re penning a short story, blog post or college essay, it’s vital to always remember what exactly it is you want to achieve with your piece. For example, if you’re trying to persuade someone to buy a certain product, would you just give a general description of the product? Or would you focus on explaining what the benefits of it are and how it could be useful to the reader? In this instance, both of these articles would read quite differently – therefore, always ensure that your narrative is consistent with your purpose.
A useful tip is to create a very linear working title: something that will keep you on track. Every time you start to deviate during the writing process, refer back to your title and ask yourself if what you’re writing is relevant or will benefit the overall purpose of your work – cull anything that doesn’t. Then, once you have finished, change your title back to something more catchy or appropriate.
5. Set the Tone
Tone is all about judging your intended audience and adopting the approach that is the most appropriate. For example, a showbiz columnist will write in a light, conversational style that reflects the subject matter, but the same approach in a serious political or business publication would be completely inappropriate.
Use common sense and, if in doubt, write as neutrally as possible. If you’re writing a memorandum to your boss or your client, for instance, use proper and professional language that is direct and straight to the point. If you’re writing an academic essay, you can elaborate and use more persuasive language to promote a particular theory or argument.
Finally, don’t try to combine or mix different tones in the same piece as it will affect the structure and come across as being inconsistent. Pick an approach and stick to it.
6. Find Your Voice
In the context of writing, your voice is what sets you apart from everyone else. Some writers are dry and acerbic, whereas others are bold and direct. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to know and develop your voice other than to write as much as possible. As well as being a good practice tool for improving your work, it will also help you resist the temptation to mimic other writers that you admire, a common pitfall for beginners.
In the grand scheme of things, having a unique voice is probably more valuable to bloggers and creative writers who are trying to reach out to a wider audience, but the more comfortable you are with your style, the less daunting you will find any kind of writing in the long run.
7. Don’t Forget Formatting
This might sound like an afterthought but knowing how to correctly format your work is something that can often be overlooked. For example, say you’ve been up all night working on a particularly tricky essay for university; that sense of achievement when you finally hit ‘submit’ is immense. But if you’ve failed to reference a particular idea correctly, all your hard work could be subject to a plagiarism query – all because you didn’t know how to format your work properly.
While this is a pretty extreme example, it illustrates the importance of knowing how to incorporate external requirements into your text. This can range from something as simple as correctly laying out a CV or a letter to knowing how to quote someone properly in a magazine interview. If you’re ever in doubt, refer to the style guide and submission guidelines of the publication or university you’re writing for, or search online for explanations and examples of any other documents you’re unsure of.
Although the actual tidying up of errors and mistakes has already been discussed, editing also involves taking your work and ensuring that everything makes sense, it is structured logically and that you have worded your points in the best possible way.
If you are self-editing, it’s a good idea to spend some time away from the piece (certainly a couple of hours, at least) before delving back into it. It’s almost guaranteed that when you read it back with a cleaner pair of eyes, certain changes will jump right out at you. If you can get someone you trust to look at it, too, then even better.
Don’t spend too long on this process, though. If you overanalyse every sentence and scrutinise everything you’ve written, nothing will ever get sent/published/submitted. As soon as you are happy that it is error-free and you’ve made the points you want to make, get rid of it.
As discussed earlier, writing can be a chore for many; hopefully, the advice in this article can make things a little more bearable. On the flipside, if you’re passionate about writing, then maybe you’ll have picked up a few things that can improve your work.
Let us know in the comments below if you’ve got any additional tips that you’d like to share.