Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Five Stupidly Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing

When I was a senior editor at a daily newspaper, I occasionally used to edit a journalist who had terrific story ideas. Much of his work ended up on the front page of the newspaper. He won awards, too. Lots of them. But he was a terrible writer.

He expressed his ideas in the most boring, repetitive ways. He didn't understand how to manage his own voice and, as a result, he often sounded clunky and inept. Worse, he was so defensive that he would never listen to any editor. He clung to his own notions as if he were a two-year-old protecting a cherished toy. Even the most diligent editors will eventually give up, as we did with him.

He thought he won. If only he understood how much he'd lost.

I always found it was sad because he had the potential to be a first-rate writer, rather than just a mediocre one.

Don't let the same thing happen to you! Here are five stupidly simple ways you can improve your own writing.

  1. Spend more time on it. Writing doesn't happen by accident. It's like running. Or playing piano. Or cooking. You have to do a lot of it — mindfully — to get really good at it. That said, you also have to ensure you don't fear the time commitment itself. Know that it's possible to start with five minutes a day. I'm a big believer in the Kaizen technique. When you become serious, you'll need at least 30 minutes a day. But start with five.
  2. Read more good writing. Writers I coach are often surprised when I ask them what they're reading. This isn't just friendly chitchat. I want to ensure that they're reading excellent writing — the type they'd be proud to produce themselves. This is important because we all unconsciously emulate the style of the writers we read. Read dreck and you will write dreck. Read top-notch work and your own writing will improve.
  3. Spend more time thinking before you write. It's idiotic for us to sit in front of our screens and stare at them until beads of blood form on our foreheads. This is no way to write! Go for a walk. Step away from the desk. Willpower alone is not enough to make words appear on the page. We first need to figure out what we want to say.
  4. Schedule "incubation" time. Before you can fulfill the important job of being your own best editor, you need some protected time away from your work. Have you scheduled this? Think about the way a typical student approaches writing (procrastinating, dilly-dallying and writing the whole damn thing the night before it's due) and you'll understand how difficult it is to guarantee incubation — time when your writing sits quietly, undisturbed, in your desk or on your hard drive.
  5. Read your writing aloud. Reading your own writing — aloud — is an essential part of the writing process. Back when I worked in newspapers, I was the crazy woman sitting at her desk talking to herself. (Well, whispering. There were about 100 of us in one gigantic open-area office and everyone else could see and hear what I was doing.) Reading aloud is so important because it allows you to hear and improve the rhythm of your writing. More than that, it's the only way to ensure that you're reading slowly enough to perform a meaningful edit. When we've written something, we know what we intended to say. It takes a slow, careful reading to ensure our execution matches our intent.

Writing can be hard work. But we make it harder on ourselves by not addressing the small, stupidly simple things that can turn it into something much easier.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 11th 2013, 7:29 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
I completely agree with the need for aspiring writers to read well-written works. I once managed a group of people whose primary job was to produce written reports of a technical nature. Although I had to fight the bureaucracy to get my way, as part of job interviews I insisted on asking candidates what they were reading. People who were not keeping up with the current technical journals were falling behind in their profession. People who were not reading well-written magazines and books on general topics probably could not produce the quality reports that were required.
Monday November 11th 2013, 8:05 AM
Comment by: LEE (New York, NY)
Reading aloud my edited material is essential. I'm an inspirational writer. When I get an idea, I will sit and write for hours; let the article rest, review as much as necessary, and release. Constantly improving my writing skills and techniques is also a necessary part of writing. I continually take classes to stay on top of moving trends, and advice from others.
Monday November 11th 2013, 9:02 AM
Comment by: TANYA R.
Excellent advice. I need to focus more on #2 and #3. I strongly believe in putting the writing aside for incubation purposes. When I return to it, I can see things more clearly.
Wednesday November 13th 2013, 10:57 AM
Comment by: william M. (san francisco, CA)
In a lecture to my writing class, John Updike emphasized the importance of reading your story out loud for yourself. "If you are a good reader, punctuate the story how you would like it to be read. The hell with the Chicago Manual of Style."

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