How to improve your writing skills
Thoroughly revised in August 2020
We wrote a post long back on the quality of writing: ‘Top tips for writing blog posts’. We talked about good content and gave tips on writing well for the web and elsewhere. If you do not want to visit that post right now (though I will strongly advise that you open that in a new tab or bookmark it), let me list the tips given there:
- Choose the topics for each post/ article with care.
- Give the post a heading that attracts attention.
- Be original and do not copy-paste content.
- Be passionate about what you say.
- Advise only if you are an expert.
- Talk to humans, not to search engines or yourself.
- Be pleasant, welcoming in tone.
- Write like a journalist: use inverted pyramid style, don't write an essay.
- Compose the post well in terms of formatting, sentence structure, etc.
- Don't ignore search engine optimization (SEO).
- Don't publish a post in a hurry. Edit it well.
In the present post, we take the subject forward, with a greater focus on the craft of writing. We shall learn from those who write well on the web and especially on blogs. As the article is going to be rather long, let me break it into sections; you can visit a section and come back to the index through links.
- Who is the reader of your writings? He holds the key.
- Show, not write. Your writing will improve itself!
- Correct information and research greatly enhance the quality of writing.
- Use assistive tech tools to improve your writing skills.
Your reader holds the key to improving your writing skills.
When you want to master the skills of writing good prose, you will already have good command over grammar, sentence structure and other basics of the language you choose. The challenge is to take your writing to the next level: when the good prose becomes highly readable, lovable, writing.
All writing is not the same as we'd discuss in the next section. So, the first thing that you should perfect on way to perfect your writing is to decide from the beginning who is your usual reader. Of course, if your writing is good, others will also find it worth reading. So, what is the persona of your reader? Writing style will have to be different depending upon such factors:
- age: Whether your main readers are kids, young adults, mature adults or aged people?
- education: Whether your readers are mostly highly educated, educated to mid-level or barely educated?
- profession: Do your readers belong to academic or research community, professionals in the subject on which you write, or laymen?
- language proficiency: Is the language you use the mother tongue of your readers or they are otherwise proficient? Or this is a secondary language for them and they have just the working knowledge of this language?
- locale: Where do your readers live? What variant of the language they use? People understand English, to whatever extent, almost everywhere in the world. However, American English differs from British or Indian English in many expressions and spellings.
I think, you have understood my point. Let me still illustrate it with one example: If you write extraordinarily well for kids, your writing will be very informal and simple. It will use short, direct sentences. Your young readers will love you for that. However, that style does not suit when you write an article on the economy, more so if that article is highly researched and full of analysis and is meant for economists.
Now, let's see how this insight can help you improve your writing skills:
For whomsoever why write, write in standard Language - even for kids. In English, don't use jargon and localese except when writing for professionals (in their field) or a local community. But no slang. For kids, write short sentences, easy language - but not poor language.
Use metaphors that the target readers would understand and love. Illustrations, examples, metaphors, similes - these help in making people understand something easily. But do not use metaphors that are alien to your readers. Especially don't use latest examples from abroad about which your readers may not be aware. Sometimes they can even be offending. For example, if you are writing a blog post on cooking and your target audience is Indian or Hindus anywhere, you should not give illustration of beef (because in Hindu religion, cows are worshipped and beef is prohibited).
There are marked differences in the way many different regions speak popular languages such as English, Spanish and Hindi. However, there is standard vocabulary and standard grammar that needs to be followed. Some play with local expressions adds to the flavor in general writings. But if you need to write serious articles - and for audiences living outside your region - and your writing is full of local expressions, you better get it edited by a friend.
If your audience is universal (well-read adults from across a wide region or across the globe), write the standard language, have sentences of mixed length (short and long). Don't use difficult expressions even if they would understand. If you need to use a few difficult or technical expressions, give their intended meaning in a bracket or explain them in a short paragraph.
Use one or more tools to check the readability of the text you have written, until you have mastered your writing skills. (Please see the section below on technology for such tools.)
Show what you want to say.
Please look at the word written above. Did the word feel out of place? Even absurd?
The word was written there deliberately, to denote a car. A car like your own or your friend's or your boss's. What picture did that word make inside your mind? The car that you are used to seeing often, isn't it?
OK, let me narrate to you a scene of what I once saw while loitering near a sea-shore hotel. A car, as big as a mini-bus and of bright red color, was parked at the porch. It had open roof and its door handles were golden and shiny. A grown-up boy and an exceptionally beautiful girl of his age approached the car. Soon the car came out to the motorway along the shore. Then the boy accelerated the engine. It just took 3 seconds for the car to reach the speed of what appeared like 150 miles an hour...
The car in your mind is now a different vehicle than that you first imagined. Your imagination must have taken you to all that that I said about the two persons - and beyond. You would be expecting them to be lovers, behaving in a particular way, etc, etc. but if I ask you what clothes the boy and girl were wearing or whether they were in a loving mood or quarreling, your imagination would not match with that of another one reading this article.
I used so many words to describe the car: it was bright red and big-sized (the comparison with a pick-up van is not flattering, but the car was actually that big) and with open roof and shiny door handles, and could accelerate to a very high speed in no time. But perhaps it does not make an impact on you.
Suppose, this car scene was to be narrated by a novelist. His way to describe would be different. He would make you see the relationship and mood of the two young ones. He would perhaps make a better comparison to show that it was a tall car. He would ignore the handles or use it differently: maybe matching its golden color with the boy's cufflinks or telling how the hotel attendant opened the door for the girl while staring at the golden shine... He would not tell you the exact speed of the car but show the boy pushing the gas pedal, his eyebrows squeezing, the girl's hair flying...
Now suppose that the same scene was a part of a TV advertisement for the car. How would the copywriter write the narration? That would perhaps highlight the exclusive features of the car, interspersing with the grandeur of the hotel, and the style and feelings of the boy and girl- and they will be either lovers or a young couple.
Let me ask you to take a snap out of the scene to supplement a post that you are writing for your automobile review website/ blog. You will not need to tell the scene but the image would emphasize the outstanding features that you talk about. Perhaps, you will use a collage. Perhaps you will like to have a video showing the fast rotation of wheels quick jump of the speedometer needle, motion blur.
The takeaway from this small episode is that you must develop writing skills to match what is required to be achieved. Taking a leaf from the above, you get the second set of actionable points on how to improve your writing skills:
- You must highlight the best aspects of an argument, a thought or an event - depending upon what you want to achieve from the article. Leave out all else though some of it might look important in its own right. Use a style that emphasizes your point as effortlessly as possible.
- You must show what the reader is looking for rather than describe in a lengthy, boring way. This applies even to serious discussions: Don't make a discussion like a lengthy editorial in a serious newspaper - giving a bland opinion, pontificating what the nation should do. Give examples. Use metaphors. Make the reader imagine things in his mind so that he grasps what you want to convey. (If that is not possible despite your effort, use an infographic, a photo, an animation or a video.)
Acquire skills for correct info and research. It will greatly improve the quality of your writing.
If you ignore this aspect of writing, all your other skills might fall apart and all that you write may look sub-standard and not trustworthy.
You must always be particular about the correctness of facts and also the richness of information, whether you write a small post or a big knowledge-base article. These actions will ensure that what you write is respected by readers and that you do not commit some silly mistakes:
- Write, especially serious articles, only on subjects on which you have full understanding of concepts and all the necessary background knowledge.
- Do research into the topic of the article.
- Cross-check your facts/ arguments before you press the publish button.
You might have encountered many slips by people and by yourself, on social networks. You make a quick comment on something and later feel embarrassed when you realize what you said was stupid, silly, incorrect or inappropriate. On social networking and chat platforms, such slips are usually transitional and ephemeral - people tend to forget them as they move on. But on blogs, magazines or websites, articles are more permanent and these can be quoted again and again. On the web, you can modify the defective/ inappropriate content later on but your reputation is already hurt if even one reader has noticed it or the article has been quoted even once. If the flaw is not noticed for long and then discovered, the damage can be even more.
Research is very important for serious topics. It is important even if you are an expert on the subject. For example, if you are a professional photographer, you’d know all the aperture-speed-lighting-sensitivity-lens stuff as much as the back of your palm. However, if you have not been regularly updating yourself on the latest technology, you might make a slip when writing on how to handle the latest DSLR camera.
It often helps to do a bit of research even where you think your writing is of a personal nature if only to cross-check facts against errors. For example, if you write about a place you have recently visited, you should not write wrong facts such as the distance of the place from major cities, local customs, history of the place, etc.
Cross-check your writing also to guard against hurting others' sensitivities. When writing about religious, ethnic, racial and gender-related matters, do not cross the accepted line. Do not lampoon stereotypes. Do not crack jokes that would hurt a particular identity. When writing about such sensitive matters, use Google to check if your expressions have hurtful connotations.
Whenever you are unable to check facts or are not sure about them, the golden rule should be: when in doubt, leave it out.
Use assistive tools to improve your writing skills.
There are many tools available online and offline, which you should use whenever you write for serious platforms. Regular use of such tools will subconsciously make you conscious of mistakes and areas needing improvements and thus improve your writing without effort.
I am suggesting some free tools but there are many paid ones, with even better features. The writing tools recommended here are for English, and similar ones are available for other major languages e.g French and German.
Grammarly is an outstanding all-in-one tool for checking grammar, etc. If you do not want to use more than one writing tool, I will recommend that you use at least this one. It will improve your writing skills like none else by suggesting improvements as you type! For this, you have to add Grammarly extension/ add-on to your browser. This extension/ add-on is available for all major web browsers: Chrome, Firefox, Edge and Safari. Once the extension is in place, it keeps suggesting the right word and highlighting possible mistakes as you type on your blog/ website.
There are many free online readability level checkers. These analyze the text based on some formula. Majority of formulas are based on the length of words and sentences: the bigger the words and sentences, the more difficult the prose is seen to be. Some of them tell the difficulty level in percentage or some others on a numerical scale. Some also tell, persons of what age or educational grade would be able to understand the text.
Use these readability tools keeping in mind that they give an approximation and not an exact or objective evaluation of your text. Also keep in mind that a high or low score can be good or bad according to the audience. A Flesch reading score of 65 (high readability of 65%) or Coleman-Liau index of 9 (good for 9th grade) may be a good level for normal blogs but may not suit kid blogs and research blogs. In a study, it was found that Wikipedia articles about sportspersons have a high score (= they are written in simple language) while those about philosophers, scientists and mathematicians score very low (=have big words and long sentences).
The paid plan of Grammarly and some free and paid readability checkers come with some other measurements of the quality of English text. These include emotion, formal or informal nature, use of cliches and adverbs, use of active and passive voice, etc. In this respect, Readable is a good tool. It gives readability scores and additional insights, and it also highlights words and sentences where it sees a problem.
If you use Wordpress for your website/ blog and use SEO plugins (e.g. Yoast or Rank Math), you also get readability suggestions on their suggestion pane.
By the way, most word processors (e.g. Microsoft Word, Open Office Write) also have an inbuilt readability checker, but it is not as feature-rich as Grammarly or Readable.
Thesaurus is another very useful tool in the arsenal of writers. This is a sort of dictionary that suggests synonyms and related words. Thesurus.com is a good online thesaurus. MS Word and other word processors also have an inbuilt thesaurus.
Article headlines play an important role in grabbing readers' attention as well as search engine optimization. There are many tools that analyze the headline and tell you how to make it more direct, emotive, impactful. I will recommend Coschedule Headline Analyzer - a free tool. It grades a given headline on many parameters and suggests improvements.
Before I close this article, let me also tell you that writing well for websites and blogs does not stop at writing well in terms of content quality and writing quality. It has to appear good and pleasing to the eye. There are many ways to give the text an extra glitter so that people stop to read it rather than move to another web page. These include font type, text size, breaking of passages, proper highlighting, etc. This article on ways to grab readers' attention gives tips on these aspects.