In an 1855 letter to poet and writer Louise Colet, the French writer Gustave Flaubert confided, "Last week I spent five days writing one page."
12 hours a day.
One page… with only 500 words.
Flaubert - who took five years to write his best-known work, Madame Bovary - often struggled for days searching for le seul mot juste (“the exactly right word”).
You don't have that luxury. As a busy freelancer, you’re plying your trade and marketing yourself.
So here’s my question: Is it even worth trying to improve your skills and become a better writer?
Yes. Yes. And yes. But why?
It’s because the benefits are many, both for your career and for your own personal satisfaction.
After all, as marketing and business consultant and writer Josh Spector says, “Writing is the rare skill that makes you better at everything you do.”
Good writing skills are part of the art of effective communication. Imagine how many situations in your lifetime will require you to share or exchange written information. Now, pretend for a moment your writing skills were 10X more effective than they are right now. As a more effective communicator, it will be easier for you to get what YOU want out of life (and the world).
The old romantic myth would have you believe that some are born with “the gift,” an innate talent for wordplay that leads directly to perfect prose and tantalizing turns of phrase. The truth is a lot more simple. Over a lifetime, proficiency in writing requires understanding the principles of good writing, time and a structured and systematic approach to confronting the blank page (or screen).
In this post you’re going to learn ten tips that will help you take your writing game to the next level in 2022 so you can become a better writer and communicate clearly and concisely, express your ideas more effectively, and gain more influence in the world.
Ready? Let’s dive right in!
From stone tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphs to the pen, printing press and Google Docs, our species has been putting words to page for 5,422 years. *
Unfortunately, we’re not always good at it.
Although I’m sure there’ve always been quality issues with a certain percentage of the world’s writing, we’re facing a problem that’s unique to our time. With the sheer increase in the amount of written communication, shoddy writing has more impact on us than ever before.
Bad writing is any kind of writing that isn't clear, well-structured, and easy to read. The kind of writing you have to reread over and over to decipher what it means or what the point of it is. Writing that doesn't flow from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, or section to section.
Bad writing wastes time in many ways.
These stats don’t even include the unaccounted for costs of bad writing…
Tons of research and data show poor communication leads to lower productivity, workplace failures, late deliverables, and even workplace injuries and deaths.
Bad writing can cost you billions of dollars. Literally.
In 2003, General Motors learned the Chevy Cobalt’s faulty ignition switch could cause the car to turn off while driving, resulting in the loss of power steering and power braking functions and also causing airbags not to deploy during a crash. GM internally labeled the faulty switch as a “customer convenience” problem and not a safety problem which led to a delayed response. The ignition switch problem has been linked to 97 deaths and GM has recalled 2.6 million cars, at a total cost of 1.7 billion dollars.
More than nine in 10 business leaders surveyed say poor communication affects productivity, morale, and growth. They cite impacts like increased costs, missed or extended deadlines, and reputational erosion. One in five leaders reported losing business or deals because of poor communication.
If your website's content—the words you write—isn't well-written, it's going to be bad for business.
As the internet has grown, so too have the number of places people turn to find information on different topics. Google is the most common of these places, and one of the major factors that determine your website's ranking in search results is how effectively you've written your content.
In my 15 years as a copywriter and author, my writing has been read by millions of people. I’ve also helped hundreds of people develop their writing skills. I've taught English and ESL classes to children and adults, coauthored a business writing book, and ghostwritten books for CEOs and business leaders. Does this mean I'm an expert? Absolutely not. But it does mean that I've had the opportunity to learn from other experts and develop my own writing "a-ha!" moments along the way. Plus, I’ve learned a few things about what it takes to become a better writer. And I'd like to share those insights with you today so you can use them to start or run your freelance business in 2022.
Get clear on 'what' you're writing, 'who' you're writing for, 'what' you want to tell them, and 'why' they should care before you write a single word.
If this sounds simple, it's because it is! Yet many people make the mistake of thinking about these things only after writing something and then realizing—oops!—their audience won't be interested in what they've written at all. Or worse: that their piece doesn't actually support its thesis.
But what does it really mean to know your audience? At its most basic level, it's simply knowing who will read what you're writing. But there are many different kinds of audiences, and each has their own needs. If you want to effectively communicate with readers, it's important to be aware of how they differ and how that might affect the content and style of your writing.
Knowing your subject inside and out can help you write with a clear voice and purpose. In order to make your work accessible to its audience, it's essential that you try to understand the way they think about the subject at hand.
It’s also important to know your goal. Why are you writing this piece? Are you writing it to teach something? To inspire? What do you want readers to think and feel on a visceral level? Are you trying to inspire them? Make them laugh? Make them cry? Make them angry? You need to know what your purpose is before you can begin writing because clarity of purpose will be reflected in the language you choose and in the way that language is structured.
We all have that one friend who can't seem to finish a sentence. They always start out with a great idea, but then they go off on tangents and never quite finish what they wanted to say or explain it as clearly as they should. Their points are lost in the chaos of their own words.
This is frustrating for us, because we know that there's something great in there—something that could be very useful for the listener. This phenomenon happens in writing too. That’s why you need to be 100% clear on what you’re trying to say…before you start writing. If you don't have a clear idea of what you want to say, it's impossible to engage with your reader in an effective way.
The most important factor in achieving clarity in writing is knowing why you want to say what you want to say. It's about the logic behind the message, not just the message itself. If you don't know why you are writing, or what your point is, then how can anyone else?
Learn how to write better sentences.
If you want to improve your writing, it's time to learn how to write better sentences. This can be achieved by following these simple guidelines.
Passive sentences often sound weak and indirect, and they make the subject seem less important than it actually is. In contrast, active sentences are more direct and forceful; this makes them more memorable for readers.
As Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style says, “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.”
Although there are times when you’ll want to use the passive voice, you should default to the active voice for stronger writing.
Abstract nouns are words like "happiness" or "justice", which are not very descriptive in themselves; concrete nouns describe specific people or objects (e.g., "the happiness of my family").
If a sentence contains too many abstract nouns, consider replacing some with tangible items that will bring life into your writing.
Avoid unnecessary words whenever possible—especially filler phrases like “very” or “really” when used as adverbs instead of adjectives (e.g., “a very big house” vs “a large house”).
Filler words fill up space in writing without adding substance.
Instead try using a stronger adjective instead if available (or better yet remove any adjective entirely). Finally, avoid ending sentences with prepositions unless doing so would make sense within context (e..g."We went there yesterday" vs "We went yesterday"); otherwise leave off those prepositions altogether since they add nothing but clutter…
As a rule, begin your sentences with subjects and verbs. That will help you make your meaning clear early. You can then let weaker elements branch to the right of your sentence.
Pro Tip: If you’re ever in doubt about how to construct an effective sentence, use the following sentence structure:
The woman threw the ball to the dog.
In other words…
A living entity does something (maybe to something else, preferably another living entity).
A sentence structure like this is easy-to-understand (h/t Dr. Karl Blanks & Ben Jesson).
Here's the not-so-secret sauce: Just as words make sentences which form paragraphs, the act of writing is comprised of various constituent parts that form a whole.
At the very least, you should break writing down into three completely different processes you approach separately: Idea generation, writing, and editing.
Writer Josh Spector says,“The first mistake to avoid as a writer is to try and do more than one of those things at a time — that’s a recipe for bad writing.”
In other words…
Respect the process. Writing is a series of actions taken in order.
There are many ways to improve your writing. One simple tip is to work on improving each step in the process.
And don't mix. For example, if you're working on a rough draft your only job is to get the words down on paper. So, don't edit. That's for the editing stage.
Depending on what you’re writing, you may want to break your process down into even more than three steps. For example:
It’s no coincidence that the best writers are also readers.
Reading is not just a helpful habit for writers, but an essential one.
Reading helps you develop an ear for language and gives you ideas for new ways to write.
Reading offers examples from which we can learn new styles and techniques as well as what works or doesn't work for us individually when it comes to our own preferences. (Not to mention reading the right material helps you learn useful things - like these books full of advice and insight on freelancing from experts on being your own boss.).
An easy way to get better at writing is by being exposed to well-written examples and learning how they were crafted. By reading great prose, we can pay careful attention to how it is constructed and try to emulate these techniques in our own work.
Reading fiction allows our minds to develop empathy, which helps us relate to our readers. A study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology found that “people who read fiction demonstrated an increased ability to empathize with others, improved ability to understand others' perspectives, increased ability to discern other people's emotions and enhanced emotional regulation abilities.”
Reading non-fiction is also a great way to learn how to write. It gives us a chance to practice reading longer forms of writing without being distracted by the constant buzz of the Internet or the latest news headlines. Non-fiction is especially useful for learning how different mediums of writing work—it can teach you how to properly use statistics, quotes, facts and figures in your writing.
Make time in your schedule to read daily (It won’t hurt to establish a daily writing practice either!).
My advice: Read widely. I don’t only read marketing content. I read magazines, comic books, classic novels, thrillers, mysteries, biographies, manga, poetry, newspapers, etc.
What’s the easiest way to make your written ideas clearer?
Learn how to proofread and edit.
Editing is the most important part of writing. It’s where you make sure that your work is clear, concise, and free of errors.
You may be tempted to skip over editing because it’s tedious and boring—but this is a mistake! Editing is not just about fixing typos or rearranging sentences; it's also about improving your content by making sure everything makes sense and flows well together. In fact, the secret to writing well is rewriting.
As a pro writer, I’ve been trained to do several editing “sweeps” looking for different ways to improve my writing with each proofreading session. Even if you don’t do that much editing, you should make sure your ideas are clearly presented and check for errors you may have missed.
So, how do you evaluate and improve your writing?
As the apocryphal Mark Twain quote says, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
When you begin to edit, do an initial sweep asking yourself these questions as you read:
Answering these questions will ensure your writing is focused on the needs and goals of your audience and has value for the reader.
Listen for gaps in your thoughts, ideas that aren’t explained adequately, omission of words, mistakes in grammar, or anything else that sounds “off.” Your goal is to make what you wrote something people want to read so if something doesn’t sound right when you read it aloud, think about how you can rephrase it. If you want, you can use Google Docs or any app that has text-to-speech capabilities to help with this step.
Even the most militant grammar Nazi can’t catch every error. To improve your writing and find spelling and grammar errors it’s fine to get a little help. If you don’t have access to a professional editor, try using a tool designed to help you enhance your own writing.
Another helpful technique used by professional writers is reading your copy backward. What this means is that a writer starts by proofreading the last sentence. You read that sentence, making sure there are no misspellings and mechanical errors. Then you move on to the next to last sentence, and so on. Writers do this because reading a document backwards puts the paper out of context. You're able to isolate the sentences and their grammatical issues by reading it backwards. When you’re trying to identify grammatical errors in sentences, most of the grammatical errors in the English language occur at the single sentence level (h/t Dr. Steven Baker).
<tweet-link>Successful writers never start with a blank screen<tweet-link> (or piece of paper).
It’s easier to create pre-made structures. A constraint forces creativity.
If you’ve written an outline first, you’ve already developed a structure for your writing. Go ahead and get your topic and major points down on the page. Now, all you have to do is start fleshing out the individual sections.
Maybe you have writer’s block?
If you absolutely can’t think of what to write, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs and author of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content Ann Handley borrows a trick from writer John McPhee and advises you begin with “Dear Mom” or “adapt it to Dear Dad, Hi hon, or Hey you" to relax and get started writing. When you pretend you’re writing a letter to someone you care about, it helps you keep your reader in mind.
Whatever you do, don’t sit down and wait for inspiration - that elusive alchemy by which ideas mystically flow from your mind to the page - to strike. DON’T. DO. THAT!
Realize that writing online is... different.
Most people reading online are trying to accomplish a goal: to find useful information as quickly as possible.
Quantitative and qualitative research (including eyetracking studies) have repeatedly shown that people rarely read online — they’re far more likely to scan than read word for word.
In fact, UX research and consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group found 79% of their test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16% read word-by-word. And a newer study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.
Because the way people read online is different from print, you should be concerned with getting people to want to continue reading. Realize scanning, skimming, and scrolling are the new reading.
The Nielsen Norman Group found that when reading online, the "dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F"
"Heatmaps from user eyetracking studies of three websites. The areas where users looked the most are colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed blue areas. Gray areas didn't attract any fixations.
The above heatmaps show how users read three different types of Web pages:
If you squint and focus on the red (most-viewed) areas, all three heatmaps show the expected F pattern."
This is why you want to use headlines, subheads and bullets to guide people's attention through your message. Here are two tips for writing in a way that recognizes people reading online are busy.
BLUF - a military communications acronym - stands for “bottom line up front”—is a technique that’s designed to ensure your reader can quickly digest the most important details within the information you’ve shared.
Using the BLUF method and putting your main idea at the beginning of each piece of writing will add clarity to your messages.
NYT/WSJ bestselling author of 18 books and US Navy veteran, Kabir Sehgal says, “The BLUF should quickly answer the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. An effective BLUF distills the most important information for the reader.
Formatting matters a lot more than you think it does when you're writing for the web—especially since so many people will be reading on mobile devices!
How can you make your writing easier to read and understand?
Research shows that writing that is concise, scannable, and objective resulted in 124% higher measured usability.
To make your writing easier to read consider:
The most important thing to do when editing is make sure your writing is clear and easy to understand.
A simple way to do that is to steer clear of these typical writing missteps.
One of the most common writing mistakes is using unnecessary jargon and unnecessarily complicated language.
Each industry has its own jargon which, in many cases, is used to foster accurate communication. However, jargon can make people feel excluded and make communication more difficult for group outsiders.
According to plainlanguage.gov, "Jargon is unnecessarily complicated language used to impress, rather than to inform, your audience."
If you want your writing to be understood, use clear, simple, jargon-free language using technical terms only when necessary.
That means no more touching base with people to discuss thinking outside the box to strategically pivot and start leveraging their competitive advantage to revamp and reboot ad creative and get on-message about the upgraded model’s third-generation innovation. OK?
Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron even introduced a Civil Service Award for clarity saying, “All our communications with the public should be human, clear, simple, helpful and professional. This means explaining complexity in everyday terms and translating jargon into simple English. If we can’t do that, we won’t communicate... So I’m asking every department and agency to concentrate on making all their communications brief, simple, human and jargon-free. I want to see these qualities in everything government writes.”
Ah, the humble comma.
Although widely used, the comma may be the most misunderstood, misused punctuation mark in all the land. It has many different uses though it commonly represents a short pause and is used to divide parts of a sentence.
Commas are tricky, and that's why many people make mistakes with them. Even pro writers (*Me raising my hand to that one*) occasionally struggle to put commas where they actually belong. So, I won’t even try to explain the rules for comma usage.
Since commas are so incredibly easy to apply incorrectly, don’t use ‘em unless you need ‘em.
That's right. I said it.
Commas are evil. Commas are not your friend.
Commas make reading difficult.
Commas are often unnecessary.
And using commas incorrectly can cause confusion, or just make your sentences seem awkward.
Plus, when used incorrectly, commas weaken and clutter your writing.
The semicolon might seem like an innocent enough punctuation mark.
After all, semicolons join ideas that are related and equal in grammatical structure. Semicolons aren’t interchangeable with commas or periods. Semicolons have two main functions:
But there is a very fine line between using semicolons properly and using them incorrectly (You can learn more about the proper usage of semicolons in this video.).
How to use a semicolon
My opinion is that most writers should avoid using semicolons.
And I’m not alone.
June Casagrande, author of The Best Punctuation Book, Period says, “Semicolons are trouble. They’re rarely used to the reader’s benefit. Far more often, they’re used to his detriment. They’re favored by writers who are so proud they know how to use semicolons that they’ll happily shortchange readers to show off their knowledge. They’re also a popular crutch among writers who don’t know how to manage all the information they want to convey, so they use semicolons to cobble it all into a single monstrous sentence. True, sometimes semicolons are useful. Invaluable even. But those situations are so rare that most writers would be better off if they never learned how to use semicolons.”
Many writers fall into the trap of writing to impress, rather than writing to express.
But when you invest more energy trying to sound smart, than you do trying to express your message in a way your reader can easily understand, you come off as anything but smart.
If you want to communicate effectively, strip away anything that will detract from your core message.
Remember to write to communicate, not to impress.
As Chuck Sambuchino, a former editor with the Writer's Digest writing community and author of several books says “the universal answer to just about everything a writer asks” is “Write to express, not to impress.”
Perhaps the most important part of improving your writing - especially if you’re writing online - is learning how to get and hold your reader’s attention.
You might be wondering how to get and hold the reader’s attention. You want them to care about what you have to say, but how? The truth is that this isn’t an easy task because people have so much content coming at them daily.
We’ve talked about why you should use simple words, short sentences, and direct language that engages readers.
We’ve covered why you should be clear on why readers should care.
And we’ve shown how people read differently online compared to in print.
That means you have to learn how to "stop the scroll"
Let people know right away what you want them to do or think by crafting a compelling (headline and/or) introduction in anything you write. Think of it like your first impression in a job interview - if you don't make a good one, it's likely that you’ll be immediately disqualified and won’t even know it until it’s too late.
Remember, curiosity holds attention.
In response to the exaggerated, hype-filled advertising practices of the early 1950s, legendary ad man David Ogilvy wrote, “The consumer isn't a moron. She is your wife.” in his 1963 book Confessions of an Advertising Man.
His admonishment serves as a reminder our readers are intelligent and capable of seeing through the gimmicky tricks we try to use to catch their attention. That’s why it’s important to remember writing is an act of communication -- meaning it should be an exchange of ideas.
If you want you have an exchange of ideas:
One way to do this is to adopt what writing consultant and author Josh Bernoff calls “The Iron Imperative” in everything you write: “treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. To embrace it means that every time you send an email or write a document, you must take a moment to structure it for maximum readability and meaning.”
Writing is an act of communication, meaning it's a two-way street. Respect your reader's time by making sure your writing is clear and concise. Don't assume they know what you're talking about; explain all concepts in detail, so that even someone new to the subject can understand.
Respect your reader's intelligence by giving them credit for being able to follow your train of thought when you don't use simple language or excessive jargon. If they can catch on fast enough, then why muddle things up by using unnecessarily complicated words or phrases?
And finally, most importantly: respect their interests and let them be entertained! Whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, make sure there are enough plot twists and character development to keep readers engaged from beginning to end with twists at appropriate intervals along the way—and if nothing else works out as planned during revisions (which it probably won't), always remember: "Less talk more action!"
We’ve covered a lot of ground.
Now, you have ten of my best tips to help you become a better writer. And, hopefully you realize the ability to write, or write well, is not a gift bestowed on a chosen few. Writing is something that can be improved with practice and by following a few tips like these.
Be patient. If you keep working at becoming a better writer, the result will be more than worth it - it will make a huge difference in your business and your life.
As David Perell, writing instructor and author of essay, The Ultimate Guide to Writing Online observes, "... even the youngest students can realize the benefits of effective writing. In a world where the average person can spread ideas globally, practically everybody can be niche famous. Learning to write improves your life by helping you think better, attract interesting people, and make more money."
These suggestions aren't the only way to improve your writing. But they are some of the best ways to help you avoid many of the problems writers face and get you started in the right direction.
My challenge to you: once you’ve read this article, is to use one (or more) of these tips to improve the next thing you write.
And, as Ernest Hemingway said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
Want to learn even more about how to succeed as a freelancer? Visit Moxie Guides and Moxie Academy to get an inside look at the art of successful freelancing—and learn what to expect from the freelance industry in 2022.