I’ve been writing a long time. This is my second year freelancing. I’ve written non-fiction. I’ve written fiction I will release next year. I’ve been praised as being a good writer since I was a kid. And yet, when I read some of the old stuff I wrote (including here), I’m often embarrassed.
In fact, if you aren’t embarrassed by some of the old things you wrote, it probably means you haven’t improved as a writer. I finished my fiction book, The Red War, in 2014, but I’m glad I haven’t published it yet, because it wasn’t ready. I’ve managed to improve my writing skills so much in these five years that I’ve left it in the dust. Now I’m bringing it up to speed and it’s far better as a result. You can do the same thing and leave your old writing in the dust with five adjustments I’ve learned through years of trial and error, but which you can make on the fly.
Here are the 5 simplest ways to improve your writing skills.
1. Keep Your Sentences (And Paragraphs) Short
I can’t emphasize this enough. As I’ve said before, the biggest problem writers have is falling in love with their own writing. This isn’t an ego trip; it’s about connecting with an audience. Audiences prefer short sentences to long ones. If you don’t believe me, put your work into the Flesch-Kincaid test and see your score. Note that the best English writing is comprehensible to a middle school student. Wordiness doesn’t make you sophisticated. It only makes you a chore to read.
Keep your sentences short and follow George Orwell’s advice of never using a longer word when a shorter one will do. In an age where people read on screens, this is especially important.
2. Avoid Anything Unnecessary
This is related to the first item. Have you ever caught yourself embellishing? Painting an expansive picture? Going on? Like right now?
This tendency is understandable, especially if you’re writing fiction. Nevertheless, you need to prune your work and constantly ask yourself if what you’re writing is really necessary. For example, you might have a character and you explain his background. Is all of that necessary? Is it necessary at the time you’re explaining it? If it is, can it be shown instead of told?
In Win Bigly, Scott Adams says that he didn’t explain Dilbert or anyone else’s background in his comic series because doing so would create breaks between the character and audience. If Dilbert’s heritage or precise profession remains vague, the reader has more chances to self-identify with the character.
One of the surest ways to improve your writing skills is to leave enough blanks so that your audience can tell their own stories, which will be more powerful than whatever it is you write.
Explain no more than what’s necessary for your purpose. Delete everything else. Homer did it, so you should too.
If that doesn’t sound romantic, don’t worry, we have three ways to improve your writing skills that are more poetic.
3. Use Action Words
If we’re discussing ways to improve your writing skills, avoiding passive voice is such a given that we need not mention it anymore. There’s more to this, though.
You should try to put an emphasis on action words. Why use “he understood this” when you can instead use “he grasped this?” Both phrases convey the same meaning, but “grasp” is more of an action word than “understand.” “Grasp” refers to a physical act everyone can identify with. “Understand” is more abstract. The less thinking your audience is doing, the more your words are flying through their heads uninterrupted.
In Unlimited Selling Power, the authors say that more persuasive figures have used a greater proportion of action words than less persuasive ones. Ronald Reagan, for example, used more active language than other presidents. It made him easier to “get” and more motivating. Action words Pre-Suade you to think about acting.
You’ve probably seen that I’ve used more action words in this part than the other parts. That’s good, because it leads directly into the next of the five ways to improve your writing skills.
4.Use Visual Language
And so their spirits soared as they took positions down the passageways of battle all night long, and the watchfires blazed among them. Hundreds strong, as stars in the night sky glittering round the moon’s brilliance blaze in all their glory when the air falls to a sudden, windless calm…all the lookout peaks stand out and the jutting cliffs and the steep ravines and down from the high heavens bursts the boundless bright air and all the stars shine clear and the shepherd’s heart exults – so many fires burned between the ships and the Xanthus’ whirling rapids set by the men of Troy, bright against their walls. A thousand fires were burning there on the plain and beside each fire sat fifty fighting men poised in the leaping blaze, and champing oats and glistening barley, stationed by their chariots, stallions waited for Dawn to mount her glowing throne.
The ending to book eight of the Iliad is one of the best examples of visual language I’ve ever come across. Language like this sucks an audience into your work like no other. You’re making them paint a picture in their minds, engaging their imaginations. They’re thinking about your work.
One of the surest ways to improve your writing skills is to be more visual in your descriptions. This language is the opposite of boring.
But doesn’t this violate the first of the five ways to improve your writing skills? Is this needless exposition? Consider Homer’s next passage:
So the Trojans held that night but not the Achaeans – godsent Panic seized them, comrade of bloodcurdling Rout: all their best were struck by grief too much to bear. As crosswinds chop the sea where the fish swarm, the North Wind and the West Wind blasting out of Thrace in sudden, lightning attack, wave on blacker wave, cresting, heaving a tangled mass of seaweed out along the surf – so the Achaeans’ hearts were torn inside their chests.
The necessary point was to illustrate that the Greeks were gripped by terrible fear, in contrast to the euphoria of the Trojans. How Homer chose to illustrate it is the truest marker of his genius. There is no better illustration of morale anywhere. The tide of battle had turned.
Not only did these passages use visual language, they combined with action words, particularly in the second passage (“chop,” “blasting,” “heaving,” etc.). The result is that the audience is imagining things while being taken on a roller coaster ride.
If you want to improve your writing skills, this is one of the natural ways to go. First decide what’s necessary, then, if possible within brevity, use visuals with action words.
But there’s one other thing left for you to do.
5. Use Hooks at the end of Each Paragraph
Have you noticed that I’ve left the ends of many of my paragraphs open? The legendary copywriter Joe Sugarman said that the best way to improve your copywriting skills is to compel readers to want to read the next sentence. Is this not the benchmark of an excellent writer?!
This is the hardest to follow of the five ways. Sometimes, you must end paragraphs a certain way. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget.
Nevertheless, the surest marker of excellence as a writer is to keep readers engaged with your content. All of the other ways outlined above are means to that end. In an age where most reading is done on screens, where you’ll have 30 seconds to hook a reader (at best), this is especially important.
Always try to end your paragraphs with an interesting hook that leads into the next one. Re-read and insert where necessary. This one isn’t romantic, but it’s the most important of the five.
Read Stumped for more copywriting skills and persuasive language patterns.