Whatever you write, you want to get your thoughts across in a clear and effective way — that’s the first thing you need to know about how to improve writing skills.
If you’re a novelist, you don’t want awkward word choices or repetitive sentence structures to distract your readers from the story.
As a freelancer, you don’t want your work to seem sloppy or poorly edited.
When you blog, you don’t want readers to switch off because you’re far too wordy.
Want the good news? Even if your writing skills aren’t as strong as you’d like, there are plenty of straightforward techniques you can use to improve them.
Here are some suggestions on how to write better.
How to improve writing skills: 10 new ways to clean your copy
No matter how much of an expert you are, all writers can stand to pick up a few tips to learn how to write better. The same way a piece of writing is never “done” being edited (there’s always something), the work to improve your skills doesn’t end.
Whether you write articles, blogs, social media copy or research papers, here are 10 techniques to use to help you write anything well.
1. Cut unnecessary words
Here are two paragraphs that say the same thing. Which one is stronger?
Example 1: In my opinion, the majority of freelancers should probably avoid working for free (or for a nominal sum) unless they are at a very early stage of their career and as yet have no pieces for their portfolio at all.
Example 2: Freelancers shouldn’t work for free unless they’re just starting out and don’t have any pieces for their portfolio.
The second clearly states a stronger case, especially since it reaches the main point with fewer unnecessary words you don’t need in a sentence.
If you write a blog post, most readers will assume it gives your opinion, so you don’t have to state that. Mastering brevity is an easy way to improve writing skills. Simply be clear, firm and direct.
2. Avoid well-worn phrases
Some phrases are so familiar they’ve lost their impact: they’ve become clichés.
For instance, “In my opinion,” from the previous example is a phrase you can always cut. Here are a few others:
- At the end of the day…
- Like stealing candy from a baby…
- For all intents and purposes… (sometimes miswritten as “for all intensive purposes!”)
- Let the cat out of the bag…
It can be tricky to spot these in your own writing, so take a quick look through this huge list of clichés to avoid here on the Be a Better Writer site.
When you edit, you don’t need to cut every cliché…but check whether it might work better to rephrase.
In dialogue, or in a first-person narrative, clichés can be a helpful way to characterize someone’s speech or thought patterns — but if you want to improve your writing skills, make sure you’re careful and deliberate.
3. Write directly to “you” (in nonfiction)
Although this isn’t appropriate for every form of nonfiction, bloggers and freelancers often write directly to the reader as “you.”
This is a great way to make your writing better, direct, conversational and stronger.
Blog posts and articles quite often use “you” or “your” very early on, in the title and/or introduction. For instance, this post on The Write Life:
Want to work in the media industry as a writer?
You generally have two options: You can seek employment as a staff member of a publication, or look for freelance writing opportunities.
Or this one about book formatting:
Unless you prefer your friends to be story nerds or those who lean toward obsessive-compulsive tendencies when it comes to grammar, you shouldn’t necessarily seek to befriend your editor.
Similar to these examples, use the singular “you” and avoid phrases like, “Some of you may know”. Yes, you (hopefully!) have more than one reader, but each reader experiences your piece individually.
You can also use “I” where appropriate (e.g. to give an example from your own life) — though, usually, it’s best to keep the focus of your piece on the reader.
4. Vary sentence structures
What’s wrong with this paragraph?
You should write regularly (not necessarily daily). You should aim to write at least once or twice a week (I recommend a total of 3 – 4 hours per week). You may find it difficult to keep this up at first (especially if you’ve not written much before).
There’s no question the advice it shares is sound and reasonable. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with the actual words used. Still, the structure of each of the three sentences is very similar: each one starts with “You” then a modal verb (“should”/“may”), and each one ends with a phrase in parentheses.
When you have several sentences in a row that follow the same pattern, they stand out…in a bad way.
Sometimes, it’s appropriate to structure your sentences like this — e.g. in a bullet-pointed list — but in regular paragraphs, it’s often unintentional on the author’s part, and it seems artless and poorly edited to the reader.
For more help with sentence structure, check out, “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences,” by June Casagrande.
5. Use subheadings as signposts
If you write blog posts, articles or sales copy, subheadings are crucial.
They break up long pieces and help readers stay focused; they also offer “signposts” to readers who may skim for specific information.
When you craft your subheadings, think about how to:
- Make them clear and direct (just like titles/headings) – Don’t try to get clever!
- Keep them short – Subheadings have a larger font than regular text and don’t generally look good when they wrap around the end of a line.
- Be consistent with the structure – For instance, each subheading might start with an imperative verb (as in this post).
6. Use direct, straightforward language
It’s rare that you’ll want to write something deliberately indirect! That would be the opposite of better writing. Instead, you’ll want your words to come across clear and strong to the reader.
This means avoid the passive voice like the plague — advice most writers have heard before as they learn to improve their writing skills. In case you need a recap, here’s a quick rundown:
Active voice: John threw the ball. ➜ Succinct and clear.
Passive voice: The ball was thrown by John. ➜ Wordier and less direct.
The passive voice omits the agent (the person who performs the action) from the sentence altogether: The ball was thrown. See?
This small detail can be useful in many ways to make your writing better; for instance, you might write about something where the agent is unimportant, or where you want to conceal the agent. (“Mistakes were made” is a classic example here.)
A good rule of thumb is to always write in a direct, straightforward way.
Make it as easy as possible for readers to engage with your ideas or your story.
7. Read aloud (or edit on paper)
No one’s first draft is perfect, and the above six suggestions should help you rework yours.
Often, it helps to go through your piece at a slow and methodical — many writers find it helps to read aloud since it highlights the cadence of your words.
If you prefer not to read aloud (or if your colleagues, family or cat would give you funny looks if you tried it), then print out your draft so you can edit it on paper.
Use a different format to make it easier to spot typos and repetitive phrasings.
At times when it isn’t practical to print, I’ve also found it helpful to convert my draft digitally: that might mean I turn a Word document into a .pdf, put a novel manuscript onto my Kindle or preview a blog post so I can get closer to the reader’s experience.
Confident, powerful writing will help your message (or your story) have its full impact on your reader.
8. Use a grammar checker
If you have a serious desire to learn how to write better and don’t have access to an in-person editor, consider using a grammar checker tool.
It’ll help you fix grammar and replace common words with more unique options. Some tools even tell you why you should make a certain change, which is an added bonus because it helps you further learn and improve your writing skills.
(But remember, don’t write and edit at the same time!)
9. Liven up your writing with descriptive verbs
Adverbs are the pesky parts of speech that can be tough to eliminate from your writing.
Because they’re descriptive words that modify verbs, adverbs that end with -ly constantly find their way back into sentences. Since people use them so commonly, they sneakily manage to influence our vocabulary.
Did you notice all the unnecessary adverbs? Here’s another way I could’ve written that sentence:
… adverbs that end with -ly always find their way back into sentences. They’re easy to use in conversation, so adverbs are sly in how they influence our vocabulary.
To improve your writing skills, tighten your copy and clear your blog, novel or article of -ly adverbs you can replace with more descriptive verbs. The first way I wrote the sentence isn’t incorrect, but the second version is less wordy and complex in comparison. Plus, it contains less fluff.
Rather than write, “She drove quickly down the street,” focus on the action to help your reader: What’s the driver doing? Speeding, so you could write, “She raced down the street at lightning speed.”
It’s a small change to swap out adverbs, but the impact is huge when you do so to better your writing with powerful verbs and less fluff.
10. Make your sentences flow
Your amazing story won’t reach your readers if it’s not composed with sentences that pace well, have proper punctuation and vivid details to enhance the reader experience.
If someone has to read your sentences more than once to grasp the main idea, that means your writing lacks flow.
To improve your writing and create more flow, incorporate this checklist of sentence structure elements in your writing routine:
- Contractions – Despite the old-age advice, a lack of contractions — didn’t, can’t, weren’t — dampens your writing with stiff informality. Smooth sentences that flow require the use of contractions to make them less uptight, plus they make your writing more conversational, personable and easier to comprehend.
- Punctuation – Take risks with punctuation to add rhythm to your writing. Without semicolons, em-dashes, apostrophes, periods and more, our stories would fall flat with no diversity in tone, cadence and feeling. For example, you can use ellipses to add mystery… Or, allude to a somber tone with shorter sentences; the kinds that create tension in your story, one word after the word.
- Imagery – Paint a picture for your readers that lures them in page after page, or scroll after scroll. You can make boring sentences all the more exciting with vivid details that create visuals strong enough to ignite your reader’s imagination. Don’t go overboard and paint the entire picture — just enough to keep them going.
Besides these 10 effective tips to use to be a better writer and improve your skills, the one thing you have to do is write. (Then, don’t stop.)
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.
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