How to Improve Your Writing Skills
Improving your writing is all about choosing the right words and sentence structure to convey your ideas in a clear and compelling manner. Although writing is often a solitary activity, you can learn from other writers and seek feedback from a variety of outside sources.
Read and Write Constantly
Novelist Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” King maintains that you cannot write well if you don’t read widely and in depth. This is not only true for fiction but for any area of writing. King also encourages writers to eliminate distractions, such as phones and open windows. He strongly urges writers to stop watching television, which he describes as "poisonous to creativity." He suggests that the most important things are often the hardest to write and require digging deeply to write successfully. Another master, the late author John Steinbeck, advised writing a page a day and not stopping to revise or correct anything until the story or novel is finished.
Write for Your Target Audience
Determine who will read your writing and write for that person. Read extensively to learn important facts in the field and to become comfortable with that field’s vocabulary. Use vocabulary that is easily understood by a member of your target audience. For example, if your article is directed toward the general public, either avoid highly technical terms or define the terms within the article. If you are writing a college-level piece, it will be read first by your instructor and then perhaps by your fellow students. Write with their interest in the subject and vocabulary in mind.
Create Action and Motivation
Use strong action verbs in simple present or past tense. Prefer the active voice over the passive voice. For example, the active voice sentence “he drove the horses through the night. …” is stronger than the passive voice “the horses were driven through the night. …” Show a character through actions rather than telling about the character’s personality. In “Guns, Germs and Steel,” Jared Diamond describes a New Guinean politician: “He talked confidently about himself, but he also asked lots of probing questions and listened intently.” Diamond shows the man’s confidence and intelligence through his asking and listening. Stephen King and others caution against the over-use of adverbs: They dilute the impact of verbs and are often redundant.
Seek Tutoring or Join a Writers Group
You may want to ask for a critique of your work to help you in the revision stage. College writing labs offer free tutoring. Many public libraries and book stores host writing clubs that provide a sounding board for writers. Organizations like the American Society of Journalists and Writers, The Young Writers Society, and Poets & Writers have forums on their websites that offer criticism and advice.
Improve Your Vocabulary
Good writing needs a strong mastery of the discipline’s vocabulary. If you often struggle to find the right word for a description or don’t understand a word, consult paper and electronic dictionaries and thesauruses. Write down the new word and use it as a flash card. Review your flash cards often. Electronic word games and test preparation apps like Word Dynamo, Scrabble and GRE Vocabulary Builder are available for building your vocabulary as well.
Use Style Manuals
Consult style manuals specific to your field of interest. For example, papers written for psychology courses or other social science classes usually adhere to the style of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. If you're doing an article for a humanities or liberal arts class, your professor may ask you to use the Modern Language Association style. Newspaper and magazine articles written for the general public usually are written in Associated Press style.
- Business Insider; 22 Lessons From Stephen King on How to Be a Great Writer; Maggie Zhang
- University of Leicester: Develop Your Writing -- Writing Skills and Technique
- Poynter Online: Writing Tool #2 -- Use Strong Verbs
- Poynter Online: Writing Tool #15 -- Reveal Character Traits
- Diamond, Jared: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Kindle Locations 196-197).
- Poynter Online: Writing Tool #3 -- Beware of Adverbs
- The American Society of Journalists and Writers
- The Young Writers Society
- Niagara University: 15 Easy Ways to Increase Your Vocabulary
Dee Shneiderman, former librarian and paralegal, has been writing for 40+ years. Published in Compute! Magazine, she helped found The Crescent Review literary magazine. Owner of Frugal-Foto Photography, she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Master of Library Science and a North Carolina Truck Driver Training certificate.