Hemingway, you ain’t. Even so, that doesn’t mean that you should pound out writing that tortures your reader. Your lackluster writing may be held against you during workplace performance reviews, and it can keep you from getting new job opportunities.
This isn’t advice for writing the next great American novel, though much of it applies. These tips and tools are aimed at helping you become a better writer of content you produce for work—be it letters, reports, blog posts, emails, newsletters, press releases, social media content, or web copy.
Consume content voraciously
Reading begets better writing. Through reading, you’ll discover new ways to express ideas, to explain complex concepts through plain language, and to engage readers with creative copywriting.
Inspiration can come in many forms, so don’t limit yourself to only consuming the type of content you write for work. Your business writing might be inspired by novels you read, dialogue in a movie you watch, and conversations you have.
As you consume content, actively think about what you like about the content and what you don’t, and how you might be able to use it later. Look for examples you can learn from, even if they’re examples of what not to do.
Collect awesome content
Put writing and other content you admire in a swipe file—a place to keep all the things that you can use to inspire your writing. This can include everything from long-form articles and entire reports to short snippets, infographics, tweets, photos, quotes, and click-worthy blog titles.
Pour through your swipe file when you’re short of ideas or need a successful copywriting formula to follow. Try modeling your work on someone else’s smart writing (but don’t plagiarize).
Make it easy to find what you’re looking for by using a searchable digital tool like Google Docs, Evernote or Pinterest. Get inspiration for your swipe file from this ultimate guide to copywriting formulas (which I swiped from Marlene Oliveira!).
Soak up writing and grammar best practices
Writing isn’t always easy. If you need to edit your own writing, the process is even harder. As you write, you grow attached to your ideas and blind to your logical and grammatical errors. To be a better writer, you need to hone your editor’s eye and improve your grammar.
You don’t need personal copies of the AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, or Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style—though they’re handy if you do a lot of writing. Search online for answers to your grammar problems, though make sure it’s advice you can trust. Grammar Girl, a.k.a Mignon Fogarty, is an excellent resource.
For even more wisdom on becoming a better writer and self-editor, check out On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, and Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley.
Keep track of your ideas
It’s frustrating to have no clue what to write. It’s even more frustrating to forget the good ideas you had.
An idea bank is simply a place to capture ideas you aren’t yet ready to write about. These ideas can include fully-baked outlines, clever leads, topics that will hook readers, a blog you want to write for, a cultural event that can make your work more timely, or a problem you want to help people solve.
A Moleskein classic notebook is just the right size for note-taking everywhere you go. Keep one on your nightstand, one in your purse/murse, and one in your desk. The downside to a handwritten list is that you can’t Ctrl-F to find a particular idea. Transfer your notes to a searchable digital tool, or skip the paper altogether. Use a simple list-making tool like WorkFlowy (my favorite) or Wunderlist, or put your idea bank in the same tool you use for your swipe file.
Sure, you could start typing away on your computer, only to realize later that you’ve wasted hours on Facebook when you should have been writing. What you need is a writing environment free of distractions.
If you’re easily distracted, you can disable the internet on your device by turning on airplane mode. Or, use a tool like Cold Turkey, RescueTime, FocalFilter, or Freedom (there’s many others) to block social media, games, and websites. The advantage of these tools is you decide what’s blocked and for how long, so you can still access other websites and programs you need.
If you find the very act of writing a distraction, Blind Write helps you unleash your train of thought. Enter your topic and how many minutes you want to write, then you type away into a black screen. When time’s up, your words appear.
Open your mouth
The formality of turning your thoughts into the written word might be holding you back. If you’re a more confident speaker than you are a writer, try dictation.
Saying what you want to write can unleash a more natural voice and creative train of thought. With practice, dictation may also speed up the writing process and boost your productivity.
Write. Write. Write.
Most advice on becoming a better writer will tell you to write every day. That’s a nice luxury if you can swing it. But, don’t let a lack of daily writing time keep you from doing whatever you can to improve your writing.
Whatever you do, write more. It’s by writing that you really become a better writer.
If you have the time, try a daily writing ritual. If you can write just once or twice a week, that’s better than nothing. If you can only cram it in after work and after dinner and after the kids go to bed and after the chores are done, so be it. No matter your routine, stick with it for at least a month to know if your new commitment to writing more has made a difference.
What are you doing to improve your writing? Help others out by sharing what you’ve tried in the comments.