How to Write Better: 8 Straightforward Techniques to Try Today

How to Write Better: 8 Straightforward Techniques to Try Today

Whatever you write, you want to get your thoughts across as clearly and effectively as possible.

If you’re a novelist, you don’t want awkward word choices or repetitive sentence structures to distract your readers from the story.

If you’re a freelancer, you don’t want your work to seem sloppy or poorly edited.

If you’re a blogger, 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 for how to write better.

1. Cut unnecessary words

Here are two paragraphs that say the same thing. Which one is stronger?

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.

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.

If you’re writing a blog post, most readers will assume that it gives your opinion, so you don’t have to state that. Simply be clear, firm and direct.

2. Avoid well-worn phrases

Some phrases are so familiar that they’ve lost their impact: they’ve become clichés.

For instance:

  • 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, and you might want to 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 do check whether a rephrasing might work better.

In dialogue, or in a first-person narrative, clichés can be a helpful way of characterizing someone’s speech or thought patterns — but do make sure you’re being 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 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:

Freelance or Full Time: Which Journalism Path is Right for You?

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.

How to Format a Book: 10 Tips Your Editor Wants You To Know

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.

(Emphasis mine.)

As in 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).

The advice in it is perfectly reasonable. There’s nothing hideously wrong with the actual words used. But the three sentences are very similarly structured: 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 lots of 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’re writing 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 be skimming for specific information.

When you craft your subheadings, think about:

  • Making them clear and direct (just like titles / headings) — don’t try to get clever!
  • Keeping 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.
  • Being 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! Instead, you’ll want your words to come across clearly and strongly to the reader.

This may mean avoiding the passive voice – advice that you’ve probably heard before! In case you need a recap:

Active voice: John threw the ball. — succinct and clear

Passive voice: The ball was thrown by John. — wordier and less direct

The passive voice allows the agent (the person performing the action) to be omitted from the sentence altogether:

The ball was thrown.

This can be useful; for instance, you might be writing about something where the agent is unimportant, or where you want to conceal the agent. (“Mistakes were made” is a classic example here.)

In general, though, you should 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 slowly and methodically — many writers find that reading aloud helps, as this 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 on paper.

Using a different format makes it easier to spot typos and repetitive phrasings.

At times when printing isn’t practical, I’ve also found it helpful to convert my draft digitally: that might mean turning a Word document into a .pdf, putting a novel manuscript onto my Kindle or previewing 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’re serious about learning how to write better and don’t have access to an in-person editor, consider using a grammar checker tool.

It will help you fix grammar and replace commonly used words. Some tools even tell you why you should make a certain change, which is an added bonus because it helps you learn and improve your writing skills.

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.

Photo via Alissa Kumarova/ Shutterstock

Filed Under: Craft


  • Jen Muller says:

    Thank you! I’m working on a blog post that’s quite lengthy. I took your advice about using subheadings. As a bonus, I was able to transform a vital concept, originally made up of several sentences, into an eight-word subheading. It works perfectly.

  • Great tips. I have been following these for my articles all these years, specially about redundancy.

  • Lisa says:

    Cutting unnecessary words has always been a problem with me because I’m too close to the writing to see what’s necessary and what can be cut in the end. I like to use Yoast SEO before posting the material to make sure I’m not using the same word twice in the beginning of sentences. I’m glad it catches things like that! I’ve gotten better about writing directly to the reader since they are the audience and not me. I like reading my stuff out loud too to make sure I’m not missing anything rather obvious when it comes to mistakes. I’ve done it before and I’m bound to do it again.

  • Meg Dowell says:

    Great tips, Ali! 🙂 I really appreciate these ‘back-to-basics’ suggestions. Sometimes we all need reminders to really comb through our words before we hit publish!

  • I have written two novels, one of which has sold considerably well. But after that I cannot write regularly, cannot concentrate, cannot take a plot to the next level, i.e. cannot fashion a story out of it. Please help.
    Ketaki [Kate]

    • Ali Luke says:

      Huge congratulations on your novel that’s done so well! I’m sure it must feel like a hard act to follow. I don’t imagine there’s an easy solution here, but you might want to look at what other authors have written about the difficulties of following up an impressive debut (I’ve definitely seen a few articles along these lines in the past).

      If you’re feeling under a lot of pressure to write, can you deliberately NOT write for a bit — take some time off, perhaps for a few weeks or even a few months?

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