The power of good writing is hard to describe. It’s visceral, an experience. It’s the sense of surfacing from the depths of a book, the emotional reaction to words on a page.
Good writing provokes conversation, comforts, and soothes. It can offer understanding in a complex and confusing world.
Think of your favourite book or piece of writing: can you pinpoint what it is you connect to so deeply?
Everyone will have a different answer. For some, it will be the plot or a particular character. For others, it may be the way things are phrased or the capturing of a slippery and elusive emotion.
Reading the works of your favourite writers can be both inspiring and daunting.
It’s easy to fall into the comparison trap, or talk yourself out of writing because it may not be perfect first time around. Trust me, drafting is my biggest struggle.
Just know you’re not alone.
The journey to better writing isn’t easy
It doesn’t matter how ‘successful’ you are as a writer. There’s always someone further along their journey also struggling with self-doubt.
Helen Garner, widely regarded as one of Australia’s best writers, spoke at the Word for Word Festival about facing the blank page of every new project with the same dread and feeling like she can’t string two words together.
The good news is that the very nature of writing means you have the chance to always improve. I’m such a nerd that embracing the challenge to always push myself further is part of the fun when it comes to words.
During my five years as a regional newspaper reporter, I helped other reporters hone their skills. I got a real thrill every time I read their work and saw my tips in action. This process helped my gain confidence in my own abilities and is one of the reasons why I want to now help you, dear readers.
The strategies I’m sharing here are ones I’ve used to improve my own writing and I hope you’ll find them helpful.
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Take time to read widely
This seems fairly obvious, right? You enjoy writing because you enjoy reading. However, I’ve found that reading for enjoyment is one of the first things to go when I’m busy or stressed.
Maybe you don’t consider yourself much of a reader, but you like blogging? This advice still applies. Reading widely doesn’t just mean reading a lot of books; read magazines, news articles, poetry or blogs.
Read outside your comfort zone; try new styles and different genres.
Of course I want you to enjoy what you’re reading, but also take time to think about how it’s making you feel (either positively or negatively). What elements do you like? How can you create that feeling in your own work?
I don’t hesitate to give up on books. But if you do decide something isn’t your cup of tea, reflect on why. Defining what doesn’t work can help you avoid this in your own writing.
This Buffer blog has some great tips for changing reading habits to grow as writers.
Know your audience and write for them
The ability to write for a specific audience is an underrated skill in your writing arsenal. It’s also something I’ve found a lot of people struggle with.
When I was at school and uni, I found it quite easy to switch between writing an academic essay and something more casual like a feature article.
I still write in so many styles: I’m writing literature criticism essays for uni, writing news on a near-daily basis, and chatting to you lovely lot here. Clearly all three audiences are very, very different and what works for one won’t translate.
Any piece of writing will be improved if you have a really strong understanding of your ideal reader and the circumstances in which they’ll be consuming you work.
However, there will be people outside this spectrum who read your work. As Vix Meldrew explains in this (very helpful) post, identifying your ideal reader will build a deeper connection with your audience.
Honestly, I’d rather have a very small number of readers who really connect with my writing than millions who find it ‘meh’ or forgettable.
Hook your reader with the perfect intro
We used to have regular writing training in the newsroom and one of the pieces of advice which was drilling in was nailing the intro. Because the number of people who'll read past the first paragraph is shockingly low.
These statistics don't just apply to newspapers and it’s crucial when writing online.
Studies have found a range of common eye scanning patterns which readers use on websites. Think of your own online reading. An article has to compete against notifications and real world distractions for your attention.
This Slate article explains why most people don’t finish reading anything online (so congrats and thanks if you’ve made it this far, much appreciated).
Genuine engagement with writing online is rare and you need to grab attention the second someone opens the page.
Some people can draft a piece and leave the introduction to last. That’s the approach I take for academic essays when I need a concise summary. But with everything else, including this blog post, I have to perfect my introduction and let that dictate the flow of the piece.
Whatever way it works best for you, making sure your introduction is the best it can be will get more people into your writing.
Slow down and take time away
Once you’ve written something (be it a blog post, article, or course) close your computer and take some time away. It could be for an hour or two, or you might leave a piece for a week. Any time away from your work will help you return to it with fresh eyes for editing.
When we’re writing something, our brain knows the message we want to get across and fills in the missing word or corrects the typo before we really even ‘see’ it. It's also why readers or other people coming in cold are likely to pick up mistakes (and why each news article in our office was read by three or more people).
As this Wired article puts it: by the time you proof your work “your brain already knows the destination”.
Unfortunately, writing for our blogs means we don’t have a team of people to proofread and edit our work.
Taking time away from whatever piece you’re working on helps make the words unfamiliar. This gives you clarity on more than just typos and helps highlight any missing elements of the story you’re trying to tell.
Writing is only the first step
The work doesn’t end when you’ve banged out that piece. Learning to edit your own work gives you such an advantage.
Presenting work that’s error-free, well planned, and to the point is crucial to gaining the trust of your audience. Nothing turns me off a blog or website faster than careless little mistakes. You may be an expert in your field, but sloppy writing will take the shine off your credibility.
This is even more important for bloggers because we don’t have the backing of a well-known masthead to bring authority to our writing: it’s all on us.