How To Write Better in 2015 (or Any Year)

For follow-up pieces, see How To Write Better, Part II: Classic Style and Part III.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can write better. One more revision here … delete that redundant word there … a little less formal … who’s my audience again? And so it goes. Hold on, let’s pause on that last question: Who’s my audience again?

This might be the most important consideration of all: Your reader’s identity. Who your reader is should dictate everything about what you write: Style, formality, diction, grammar, punctuation. The general age, gender (where applicable), profession and life situation of your audience should all be in your head as a writer. To these add the specific context in which your content is being consumed (format, channel, medium) and the prior knowledge or previous history your reader has with you and the subject you’re writing about.

What else makes for a better writer?

Read voraciously and often
The College of Wooster—my alma mater—had a required course for English majors when I was there (and for all I know, still does). It was called “Writers as Readers,” and the biggest thing I took away from it was that your writing can’t be any better than your reading. Put another way, your exposure to great writing—and a variety of styles—informs your own realm of writing possibility. It’s a two-way street. If you want to be a great writer, you have to be a great reader. Years later, I can say with certainty that this philosophy has shaped my success as a writer.

How do you become a great reader? Open your eyes to diverse sources, everything from the back of cereal boxes to that beach novel you’ve been saving for summer. Look at the world around you: Posters on telephone poles, signs in grocery stores, messages on public bulletin boards. Obviously, writers in marketing or related commercial fields should monitor the top professional publications related to their work. Peruse websites or pick up a magazine (yes, they still exist). Read LinkedIn blog posts, classic novels, nonfiction, newspapers, essays, poems, anything you can get your hands on. The key is to expose yourself to a broad diet of regular and consistent reading.

Exercise the writing muscle (or, get behind the mule and plow)
In the old days, this might literally refer to your hand as you steady the pen or quill, but I’m talking about the mental discipline of writing. As with any other skill, mastery comes through repetition and incremental improvements. As Marketing Profs’ chief content officer Ann Handley said in a recent webinar, writing is “not inspired magic, but a regular habit.” Too many people (myself included) fall victim to the assumption that if the inspiration isn’t there, then the writing won’t happen. This is a fallacy.

Anybody who writes for a living knows that sometimes you’re not going to “feel” it, and the process is going to be slow and tortured, like waiting in line at the BMV. However, those are the times when you just have to get behind the mule and plow, to quote Tom Waits from his great Mule Variations album. It is only through plowing that you will start to make the connections required of good writing. Coming back to it the next day can be a good option if no sparks are flying, but never use “I’ll be inspired later” as your excuse for not writing, because you will kill productivity. Put another way, no paragraph, blog post or book comes out completely formed from divine inspiration breathed into the miraculously perfect arrangement of words by a gorgeous muse. You have to work at it to make it good, from the first draft all the way to the last revision.

Revise, revise, revise
Never be afraid to take another look … or have someone else look at your work. Edit ruthlessly. I think it was Neil Young who once said of the singer-songwriting process, “Sometimes you have to slaughter the babies.” Yes, it can hurt to let go of work you labored over, but in order to refine your product, practice the old cliché of “addition by subtraction.” Don’t get attached to words or phrases. Rather, get attached to what communicates your message best to your particular audience. Always put the reader first, and cut anything that doesn’t serve the reader’s purpose clearly and concisely.

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If you liked this, you may also like:

How To Write Better, Part II: Classic Style.

How To Write Better, Part III: Use a Dictionary.

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Paul Richlovsky

About Paul Richlovsky

Paul brings a writing and teaching background to his decade-long marketing career. He advises clients on content strategy and editorial direction. He is an enthusiastic marketing automation practitioner and active member of the Cleveland Marketo User Group. He has written/edited multiple marketing guides, including those aimed at healthcare, higher education, financial services, B2C brands and manufacturing audiences. With a BA in English from the College of Wooster, he is also the author of a collection of poetry, "Under the Lunar Neon."He is particularly interested in usability, digital governance, ballroom dancing, bachata, racquet sports, and romping with his niece and nephews.

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