In the past six months that I’ve been a Content Crafter at Buffer, I’ve been writing a lot. I’ve also been trying to write regularly on my own blog and for my startup, Exist. That’s a lot of writing.
During this time, I’ve also been experimenting with small changes in my workflow, my writing process and the types of content I produce. The result has been an improvement in my writing and a better understanding of how I work best. Hopefully you’ll find some of these things helpful in improving your own writing.
1. Exposing it to different people for feedback
Feedback is hugely important for my writing. If I don’t spend long on a piece, I often overlook small typos or grammatical issues. I don’t craft my words quite as carefully as I could, and I tend to repeat myself a bit. Having someone read over my writing can highlight these issues and help me to clean up my work.
On the other hand, if I spend a long time on a piece, it can be just as bad. It’s easy to become lost in a piece after a while, and have trouble stepping back and seeing it objectively. It’s also hard to forget all of the extra context I have in my head by that point, and read it as a reader, who has little or no context about the topic.
Again, having someone else read my work really helps at this point. If nothing else, it gives me a break to refresh my mind before I come back for more editing. Usually, though, I find my work improves from other people’s suggestions.
While Leo is usually the person who reads through my blog posts for Buffer, occasionally we’ll have a discussion in our Content Crafters room in HipChat and more of the team will jump in.
It’s surprisingly helpful to get ideas and feedback from multiple points of view.
2. Experimenting with new formats and structures
We have a pretty good idea of what works best for us on the Buffer blog, but it’s always interesting to experiment with new content types as well.
Here’s a list of the different types of formats I’ve experimented with over the past few months:
The more kinds of content I try creating, the more I find that certain aspects apply to multiple formats (for instance, images usually make a post more interesting, regardless of the format). I also have to work harder when I write a new kind of post, since it doesn’t come to me as easily.
Something I’m keen to try this year is experimenting with long-form content and perhaps even an eBook or downloadable PDF. New formats are exciting and scary, and definitely worth doing if you want to stretch your writing muscle.
3. Changing my workflow with new methods
As well as new formats or types of content, I’ve experimented a lot with my writing process in the past six months. I wanted to optimize for efficiency, but I didn’t want my work to drop in quality. Experimenting is really helpful in determining what works and what doesn’t. In my case, I’ve tried different methods, environments and schedules in my quest for a workflow that suits me.
I’m now at a point where I can write 3-4 posts for Buffer each week, 1-2 for Exist, and an extra one for my personal blog each week if I’m lucky.
One thing I experimented with a lot is the process of brainstorming, outlining and drafting a post. The editing process is usually more straight-forward, and I’m sure many of you would agree that getting those first few words on paper (or screen) is one of the hardest parts of writing.
Depending on the type of post I’m writing and how research-heavy it is, I may go straight to screen with my notes and outline the post. If I’m using lots of quotes—like in this post—I’ll copy-and-paste a lot of material right into my text editor and work from that.
For posts that rely on my own words more, I like to make notes on paper first, to get my head around the topic. I find this useful for getting an overview of the post as a whole and working out the structure I’m going to start with, too.
I love what Austin Kleon says about using paper to sketch out ideas first in his book, Steal Like An Artist:
The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us—we start editing ideas before we have them.
Another thing I’ve been doing more is using books for researching topics, rather than blog posts (or as well as blog posts). I like that I can take a book and a pen and do my research in an armchair. It gives me a physical and mental break from sitting at my computer, being connected to the world.
I also find this is a more efficient way for me to take in lots of information about a topic and process it, so the resulting post is higher quality than if I’d tried to take research straight from a blog post and use it before I fully understood it.
4. More practice, less theory
I think everyone working in a creative field struggles against the inclination not to exercise their creative muscles. It’s so much easier to keep researching or reading or tweeting and not get around to putting words down.
For me, I find reading and researching a post are the most nefarious distractions. Because they are important to my work, it’s really difficult to protect myself against my own tendency to do these far longer than is necessary. I read a short essay recently by Fiery Cushman that explained the way people cheat without realizing it, and I’m sure procrastination often works the same way for me:
research shows that people tend to cheat only as much as they can without realizing theyre cheating [Mazar, Amir & Ariely, 2008, Jour. Marketing Res.]. This is a remarkable phenomenon: Part of you is deciding how much to cheat, calibrated at just the level that keeps another part of you from realizing it.
When I do notice that I’m dragging my feet and should have started drafting a post already, I like to remember this quote from David McCullough:
There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching. There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing.
The other way I’m actively trying to curb my own tendency to waste time is to limit what I read. I’ve stopped subscribing to any RSS feeds and I’m much more careful about choosing articles and blog posts to read online. These are the places I get lost most often in content that doesn’t offer me anything new or useful for my work so posts about writing better, productivity and ticking off to do lists are all but banned from my reading list now.
5. Reading (and doing) more widely
While I am actively trying to stop myself from wasting time on content that’s not useful to me, this often comes down to articles that say the same things I’ve read a million times before. On the other hand, I’m trying to be open to reading more widely—more fiction, more varying nonfiction topics, more research papers—to help me add more knowledge to my reportoire.
The more widely read I am, the more chances I have to generate new, creative ideas or come up with interesting angles for each topic I write about.
Widely-ranging experiences are just as important as being widely read, I think. From my experience, the more things I do, the more ideas I have and the better my work is. Though I haven’t been great at this lately, I try to remember that doing new things will give me more to draw on in my work later.
6. Paying attention and taking notes
This point doesn’t really fit in this post, since I’ve actually done a lot less of this in the past six months. I’ve resolved to put more effort into this practice going forward, though, so I’m going to include it anyway, in case it’s useful to you.
Taking copious notes has been remarkably useful to me in the past. I mentioned in the last point that adding to my knowledge gives me more to draw on in my work. Unfortunately, I’m not great at remembering everything I read. Not well enough to find it again, at least. This is where notes come in handy.
Whether I have a notebook handy or I use an app to capture something digitally, keeping track of quotes, books I’ve read, phrases and words I like, interesting concepts and ideas I have is worth the effort.
What have you done to improve your writing recently? Let us know in the comments.
If you liked this post, you might like 5 ways to get through writer’s block or content marketing fatigue and 6 Of The Best Pieces of Advice From Successful Writers
P.S. Recently we launched brand new Buffer for Business, with Google Analytics support, fan and follower growth options and more. Check it out and see if it can help your social media efforts.
Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a marketer quite like being asked to write a blog post. Some marketers would rather wrestle with pivot tables (or grizzly bears) for days on end than write a blog post – but why?
Writing doesn’t have to be this painful.
With content marketing shaping up as one of the most important marketing skills to have on your resume, getting a handle on writing could really benefit your career as well as the obvious benefit of increasing traffic to your company's site.
Writing is intimidating to a lot of people, particularly those who don’t write for a living or on a regular basis. The good news is that writing doesn’t have to be agonizing, and almost anybody can improve their writing skills with a little discipline and a willingness to learn. Here are 16 ways you can start improving your writing skills right now.
1. Brush Up on the Basics
Before you can start writing incredible content, you’ll need at least an intermediate understanding of the basic principles of writing.
This doesn’t mean you need to enroll in a prestigious creative writing program at an Ivy league university, but you will need to know the basics of grammar and spelling. Every writer should have a copy of “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White on their bookshelf, as this small but invaluable book is one of the most comprehensive resources on the correct use of grammar and other helpful topics.
For quick and easy online resources, bookmark Grammar Girl and, of course, Merriam Webster.
2. Write Like It’s Your Job
If you want to get better at something, you have to practice – and writing is no exception!
Unfortunately, there are few shortcuts that can transform you into an amazing writer overnight, and even the most talented writers had to learn their craft over a period of many years. It's admitedly even harder to write while considering SEO and how to drive traffic to your post.
If you want to improve your writing skills, writing on a regular basis will not only diminish your fear of the blank page (or blinking cursor), it will also help you develop a unique style. So, even if nobody reads it, keep writing. Practice makes perfect.
3. Read Like It’s Your Job
The best writers are also keen readers, and reading on a regular basis is an easy way to start developing your writing skills. I don’t just mean blog posts, either – diversify your reading material. Expand your horizons to more challenging material than you typically read, and pay attention to sentence structure, word choice, and how the material flows.
The more you read, the more likely you are to develop an eye for what makes a piece so effective, and which mistakes to avoid.
4. Find a Writing Partner
If you work at a reasonably sized company, the chances are pretty good that there is at least one other person who also secretly harbors a desire to become a better writer. Although writing is typically considered a solitary activity, the best writers know when it’s time to get much-needed feedback on their work.
Talk to your coworkers (or friends) and ask someone if they’d be willing to cast an eye over your work – they may spot mistakes that you overlooked.
Finding a writing partner is also a great way to hold yourself accountable and keep going.
5. Join a Workshop or Take a Night Class
Most people balk at the idea of standing in front of a room full of strangers and baring their soul to the world, but joining a writing workshop can be immensely beneficial – and a lot of fun (if you manage to find a good one).
You don’t need to have an unfinished novel hidden away in your desk drawer to join a workshop. These days, content marketing meet-ups and professional development groups are becoming wildly popular. Join one of the many content marketinggroups on LinkedIn to meet like-minded writers, or search for writing workshops near you on sites like Meetup. Pick a topic, write something, listen to the feedback of the group, and then revise it. Rinse, repeat.
6. Dissect Writing That You Admire
Most people read the same blogs or sites on a regular basis because the material appeals to them – but fewer people understand why their favorite blogs are so appealing.
Find a handful of recent blog posts you really like, then print them out. Next, just like your high school English teacher did, take a red pen and highlight things you liked: certain sentences, turns of phrase, even entire paragraphs. Examine why you like these elements, and see if there are any common threads in your favored reading material. See how writers take one subject and transition into another. Apply these techniques to your own work.
Let’s take a look at a particularly powerful (and memorable piece) from Copyblogger that serves as a great example of this.
Immediately, you’re hooked by Morris’ opening. You can’t not read to see what happens next. The pacing is excellent, it grabs your attention, and best of all, it keeps you reading. This piece was first published back in June, and I still remember it. Read the full post here, and see how Morris masterfully tells the story of a band named Death and how this relates to writing content.
7. Imitate Writers You Admire
Before we go any further, a disclaimer – imitation is not the same as plagiarism. Don’t rip off anyone’s work. Ever.
Just as you probably have a list of blogs you read often, you’ll likely also read the same writers on a regular basis. Identify what it is you enjoy about their work, and see if you can use it to improve your writing skills. Does a writer you like use humor to spice up dry topics? Try it. Do they use pop culture references to make their work entertaining and useful? Try that, too.
When I first started writing, I imitated some of my favorite nonfiction writers and essayists, such as Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Bill Bryson. I also attempted (and failed) to imitate writers such as Dave Eggers and Dan Kennedy, but soon realized that I wasn't funny enough and gave it up. Over time, I eventually developed my own style, but reading the works of these writers and seeing how they constructed their essays and books was immensely helpful to me as a writer (see tip #3).
8. Remember That Outlines Are Your Friend
The blinking cursor of a blank page is a considerable foe, even for the most experienced writers. Before putting pen to proverbial paper, sketch out an outline of what you plan to write. This will be your battle plan, and it will help you win the war. Very few – and I do mean very few – writers sit down to write anything without a solid plan in mind.
An outline doesn’t have to be complex. A simple framework of which sections should appear in a particular order, along with a few sentences about what each section contains, may be enough. If the topic you’re tackling is a little more complex, your outline might have to be, too – but having an outline before you write is like having a roadmap in the glove box of your car before a road trip. If you start to feel lost, refer back to your outline and get back to kicking ass and taking names.
Let’s take a look at a real example – one of my own outlines:
Brief summary of the post
Section 1 – What is Brand Voice?
Paragraph(s) explaining the key principles behind brand voice (style, tone, and messaging)
Examples of each
Section 2 – Developing Brand Voice with Content
Explanations of how to develop brand voice using content (written, visual, video)
Considerations for content producers/marketers to bear in mind when producing content (strategy, goals, overall brand messaging)
Section 3 – Examples of Content That Builds Brand Voice
Several examples (three or four) of content that aligns well with marketing positioning and branding of recognizable brands
This outline eventually became my recent post about brand voice. I deviated from my initial outline slightly, but the overarching structure was always there to keep me on target.
9. Edit Your Work Ruthlessly
So, you’re writing every day (or regularly, at least), and you’re feeling more confident about your work. Awesome! Now you’re going to become your own harshest critic.
Editing is a tough skill to learn for beginner writers, because they place immense value on the time and effort they put into writing in the first place. However, a lot of writing is actually rewriting, and this is where the cold, hard eye of an editor will serve you well.
Develop the discipline it takes to eliminate extraneous words (more on this shortly). Resist the temptation to wax lyrically and get to the point. Not sure if a paragraph works? It probably isn’t. Be tough on yourself, and know when to delete or rework something. Your work will be much stronger as a result.
10. Accept That First Drafts Are Almost Always Crap
The best writers make it look so easy. After reading a great post, it’s tempting to imagine your favorite bloggers effortlessly turning in incredible posts with minimal effort before spending the rest of their day reading obscure books in a quaint corner café somewhere. Take comfort in the knowledge that this isn’t how writing works.
First drafts are almost always crap, and that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t create a masterpiece on your first attempt – chances are, you probably won’t, and that’s okay, too. Just get your ideas down on paper first, then go back and start cleaning up. Writing is an iterative process, and even the best writers have to spend a lot of time reworking material they were probably too embarrassed to show anybody.
11. Find a Good (Patient) Editor
Whether you’re trying to make the case for a content strategy to your manager or want to start guest blogging on your favorite sites, finding and working with a good editor is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing skills. I’ve worked with dozens of editors over the years, and in my experience, the best are those who show you why something doesn’t work, rather than just telling you that it doesn’t.
Allowing someone else to read your work can be brutally difficult for some writers, especially when they’re just starting out, but it’s crucial that you develop good habits from the outset and learn to accept constructive criticism about your work. Remember – writers are desperately needy creatures who need to be constantly reassured that they’re the creative geniuses they believe themselves to be, but you’ll need to develop a thick skin if you’re serious about your work, and a good editor is invaluable when it comes to toughening up.
12. Eliminate Unnecessary Words
Another common mistake among beginner writers (and some more experienced writers who should know better) is writing overly complex sentences in an attempt to “sound” more authoritative.
In many cases, shorter sentences can have a greater impact. You may have heard of a six-word story that was supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway, which reads, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Whether Hemingway wrote this or not is irrelevant – the power of these six words shows that brevity can be a powerful tool when used correctly, and not every sentence needs to be overwrought to get your point across.
Let’s look at another real example from one of my posts – my very first post for WordStream, as it happens. This lengthy sentence is a prime candidate for a ruthless red pen, even if my lame jokes were intended to give it a little more flavor. I’ve edited the sentence to show you how you could edit a similar line in your own work (additions italicized).
“Whether you’re a newcomer to AdWords or have been running PPC campaigns for years, you’ve probably given a great deal of thought toabout which keywords will result in more clicks and higher conversions– not to mention that vacation home in Lake Tahoe you’ve been dreaming about.”
13. Take a Stroll Down Memory Lane
I’ve been writing professionally, in one way or another, for the past ten years. When I look back at my early work, which I do every so often, it literally makes me cringe. I don’t do this because I’m a masochist, but to remind myself how far I’ve come.
Writing should be fun, and along with the thrill of seeing your byline for the first time, seeing how far you’ve progressed is one of the most satisfying parts of being a writer. Every now and then (but not too often), re-read your earlier work and marvel at how much better you are now than you were then. Pat yourself on the back. You’ve worked hard, so don’t be shy – congratulate yourself.
14. Don’t Be Afraid to Say What You Think
Most content on the web is bland and dreadfully boring. This is because far too many bloggers focus on regurgitating the same news as everybody else without bothering to add their own opinions. Obviously you don’t want to fall afoul of libel laws, but that doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) say what you think.
Once you’ve started to discover your own “voice,” don’t be shy about sharing your opinions. This makes for more interesting reading. Don’t be contrarian for its own sake, and don’t set out to purposefully piss anyone off, but make sure there’s enough of you in your writing to make it a worthwhile read for your audience.
15. Do Your Research
Aside from plagiarizing someone else’s work, nothing will undermine your credibility faster than failing to do your homework.
In their eagerness to be done with a blog post (or even major newspaper article), many writers try to take shortcuts with the facts. This can range from accidentally fudging a statistic out of haste to being lazy when it comes to sourcing or attribution. Not only can this land you in big trouble with your editor/content marketing manager/other boss-type person, it also makes you look like an amateur.
Everybody makes mistakes, and you don’t need to spend weeks cross-referencing every last statistic (see the next tip), but common sense should prevail here – don’t rely exclusively on sites like Wikipedia, and use current, primary sources whenever possible.
16. Remember Done Is Better than Perfect
You should definitely take the time to write as well as you can, proofread and edit your work thoroughly, and ensure that your piece flows logically from one point to the next.
However, this doesn’t mean you should take weeks to write something.
No piece of writing will ever be perfect – you have to know when it’s time to let it go. This is especially important in content marketing, because you’ll rarely (if ever) have the luxury of crafting agonizingly beautiful blog posts full of poignant sentences and evocative imagery. As you become more confident, the “writing” part of writing will become easier and faster, but never lose sight of the fact that deadlines, or editorial calendars, are just as much your masters as any boss or manager.
As for me, I’m going to take my own advice and call this post done. I hope you find these tips useful, no matter how long you’ve been writing.
Summary: How to Improve Your Writing Skills
- Brush up on the basic principles of writing, grammar and spelling.
- Write like it’s your job and practice regularly.
- Read more so you develop an eye for what effective writing looks like.
- Find a partner. Ask them to read your writing and provide feedback.
- Join a workshop, meetup, or take a writing night class.
- Take the time to analyze writing you admire.
- Imitate writers you admire.
- Outline your writing.
- Edit your writing.
- Accept that first drafts are often bad and revise.
- Find an editor who demonstrates patience.
- Eliminate unnecessary words from your writing.
- Review your earlier work and see how you’ve grown.
- Don’t be afraid to say what you mean in what you write.
- Make sure you do adequate research on your topic.
- Don’t delay writing. Get it done now.