Writing is a spectacular career. It’s creative, you can do it from anywhere, and it doesn’t require advanced degrees or certifications.
But make no mistake, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to work at it! Good writing doesn’t spring fully formed into the minds of inspired writers. It takes time, effort, and a commitment to getting better.
If you’re ready to become a better writer, these tips on how to improve your writing skills will get you there.
1. Read with a Critical Eye
You’ve heard it before — reading makes you a better writer. But your sixth-grade English teacher or writing workshop instructor probably didn’t mention the most important thing:
How you read matters much more than how much.
You’ll get better faster if you read with purpose. Identify the topics you want to write about and the kind of writing you want to do, then look for examples of that.
For instance, if you want to write email copy, read every marketing email that hits your inbox. Think about whether it works or not. Does it make you want to click the “learn more” link at the bottom of the page?
Learn from bad writing and good writing. Think about how you’d change the bad parts. Pick apart the great stuff and identify what makes it great. Soon, you’ll start avoiding those mistakes and repeating those successes in your own work.
2. Focus on the Message
As a writer, your job isn’t just to put words on paper or screen. It’s to communicate a message from your client to their intended audience. The more specifically you can understand that message, the more focused your writing will be.
A message is different from a topic. The topic of this blog post is writing tips. The message is, You can become a skilled writer by doing these 12 things. That’s the desired takeaway — the actions that the writer needs to take to succeed.
Anything else is just noise.
Keeping the message in the back of your mind makes your writing cleaner and more purposeful. It also makes writing easier — no more agonizing over what you should and shouldn’t include.
3. Outline Before You Write
Outlining your work is the best way to keep your writing on track.
Sadly, a lot of writers feel put off by the word “outline” because it makes them think of the highly complex, academic kind of outline that their high school teachers demanded.
There are no such requirements in the real world! Your outline is for your eyes only, and you can structure it any way you want.
If you’re new to outlining, the easiest method is usually the skeleton outline. It’s a bare bones list of the main points you want to make and your supporting details. It looks like this:
Image source: AcademicHelp.net
Not into Roman numerals and indents? No problem. You can get the same benefit from a mind map, which lets you organize your thoughts graphically:
Image source: MindTools
You can create mind maps by hand or use one of the many free online or app-based tools available. Alternatively, you can write your notes on Post-Its and create an organizer on your home office wall or window. It’s all about what makes sense to you!
4. Use Fewer Words
Now that we’ve covered planning and organizing, it’s time to get into the meat and potatoes of content creation.
The first lesson is the most important: Quality beats quantity.
It’s a hard lesson, especially if you earn by the word, but better work will always get you more business. And in the world of online content creation, concise writing wins the day.
Start looking for ways to say the same thing with fewer words. Eliminate redundancies. For example:
- Replace due to the fact that with because
- Replace in order to with to
- Replace over the course of with over
- Replace period of time with period
Changes like these will make your writing tighter and instantly more effective.
5. Recognize Filler
You can easily bring down your word count by cutting filler words and phrases. These add nothing to your content, other than unnecessary bulk. Common examples include:
- Of course
- Sort of
- Needless to say
- The fact is that
- It’s important to note that
If you’re not sure whether a word is filler, cut it and read the new sentence to yourself. If the meaning is the same, you just cut some filler.
6. Simplify Your Language
Most people started writing in school, where big words and complex sentences earned praise from teachers. But you’re a professional now, and your real-world clients don’t care if you sound smart. They want to know that you can reach their audiences.
You can easily check the readability of your work with an online scoring tool. This one, from WebFX, lets you cut and paste from anywhere.
7. Shorten Your Sentences
You’ll invest a lot of time and effort in simplifying your word choice. Don’t undo all that effort by
As a self-indulgent freelance writer once said:
Even if you use short words and avoid filler, which we all try to do, you can confuse and bore the reader when your sentences get too long — a mistake of which many an experienced writer is guilty.
Yikes. Here’s the translation for that monstrosity:
Long sentences confuse readers, even if the words are simple. It’s a common mistake!
Keep your writing clear by sticking to simple sentence structures. Replace semicolons with periods. Minimize prepositional phrases. Instead of:
By writing simple sentences, you’ll communicate more clearly.
You’ll communicate more clearly by writing simple sentences.
This change can be hard for writers to make. You might feel like you’re being abrupt. Take a deep breath and trust the practice — your readers and clients will thank you.
8. Avoid Repetition
All writers have words they love. Make sure those words don’t appear too frequently in your writing, or readers will start to notice and get distracted.
For instance, many writers overuse the word “however.” It’s not usually the kind of word you can cut because it indicates contrast. Instead, consider replacing it with a synonym like although, but, yet, or even so.
Working on repetition will also help you to build your vocabulary. The more alternative words you use, the more you’ll have in your arsenal.
Try this exercise: Read the last thing you wrote. Identify at least two words you used more than once, then think of a replacement for each repetition. Record those replacements somewhere you can refer to them later, then add to that list every time you fix a repetition.
9. Shorten Your Paragraphs
Digital audiences tend to scan content, especially when they first encounter it. Big blocks of text are turn-offs, both to your readers and the clients who want those readers to stick around.
To keep your paragraphs under control, use the the 1-2-3-4-5 Test. Journalism professor Jon Ziomek developed it to make stories more readable online.
To pass the test, a paragraph must:
- Cover only 1 idea
- Include no more than 2 or 3 sentences
- Be no longer than 4 to 5 lines of text
If you’re writing for the web, aim for the shorter end of the range. Don’t pack your post with five-line paragraphs. Try to stick with four lines or fewer but make two- or three-line paragraphs your default.
10. Know the Rules (and When to Break Them)
Image source: Writer’s Community
Okay, it’s very unlikely that anyone will chop and sauté an elderly relative because of anything you write. But you do need a basic grasp of style and usage to write professionally.
Why Does Grammar Matter?
Most importantly, good grammar makes your writing clearer. It also helps you sound more professional and will leave a better impression with clients as well as editors. An error-riddled piece will make someone less likely to hire you again.
Don’t worry — you don’t need to be a grammar expert to succeed as a freelancer. Plenty of professional writers struggle with grammar and spelling and do just fine, largely thanks to online grammar checkers like Grammarly, Ginger, and AfterTheDeadline.
Rules Are Made to Be Broken
Sometimes you’ll need to break the rules of grammar in favor of clarity. (Case in point: The passive voice in the headline above. Sorry, but Rules Are Made for People to Break just sounds awkward.)
You’ll break the rules more often when you write for the web. Start a sentence with “But” or “And.” End with a preposition. And it was the best place he went to sounds more conversational than Also, it was the best place to which he went.
Conversational wins, nine times out of 10. (The 10th time is the client with a hyper-formal brand voice.)
11. Write Daily
You can collect all the writing tips in the world, but you’ll only learn how to improve your writing when you start putting those tips into practice. Commit to writing every day, or every working day if writing is your full-time job. (Even writers need days off.)
Client projects count toward your daily writing. If you don’t have one to work on, write in a journal or create a post for your blog.
A blog, by the way, is an excellent way for a freelance writer to strengthen their skills. Blog posts, especially high-performing ones, can even be writing samples if your writing portfolio is thin.
12. Edit Ruthlessly
You need to be your own harshest critic as a freelance writer. Before you submit anything to a client, step away from it for a while, then come back and read it over.
- Does it flow well?
- Am I getting my message across?
- What extra words can I delete?
- Are there any typos or missing punctuation marks?
- Does it make sense overall?
If you don’t trust yourself to be objective, have someone you trust read your work. You can even create a small group of fellow writers who critique each other’s pieces.
In time, you’ll start to internalize their feedback and be able to edit your own material.
Key Takeaways: How to Improve Your Writing
You don’t have to be a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist to succeed as a freelance writer. With these 12 tips, you can take your work to the next level and start winning clients.
- Read as much as you can, especially in your chosen genre and niche.
- Be thoughtful about every word and phrase. If it doesn’t help you convey your message, cut it.
- Outline every piece before you write it.
- Eliminate all unnecessary words.
- Recognize and avoid filler.
- Default to simpler words.
- Use simple sentence structure whenever possible.
- Variety is the spice of life. Don’t use the same word multiple times if you can avoid it.
- Keep your paragraphs short — no more than four lines, and not too many of those.
- Know the rules of grammar, but break them when it makes your writing clearer.
- Write every day, even if you don’t have a piece due.
- Edit your work until it’s as clear and concise as possible.
And finally, remember that writing is a journey! You’ll be a better writer tomorrow than you are today, and you’ll be even better next week. Keep at it and remember — the more you edit, the more you grow!
Musings and updates from the content management team at Clippings.me.