Writing is an integral part of our everyday lives. It has taken on even more importance recently, thanks to the rise of remote working. A conversation that you might have previously had face to face now takes place over email or Slack. It’s unsurprising that poor writing technique can seriously affect an organization’s productivity, with working relationships and timelines both negatively impacted by suboptimal communication.
Effective writing isn’t simply about making yourself understood, though. It also impacts how people respond to you and how they perceive what you’re trying to convey. Writing has the power to activate the rewards circuit in the brain, generating dopamine in the same way as sensory pleasures. Emotionally charged words can elicit intense and profound emotions in the reader. Finding ways to improve your writing technique is a simple but incredibly powerful way to reach people in ways that really matter.
To help you harness the power of strong writing in and out of the office, here are five simple and proven ways to improve your writing technique for effective communication and to help you become more at ease with the blank page.
“Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” – Annie Proulx
This advice is founded on observational learning: we watch others do the thing that we want to master so that we can understand the process. By reading, you expose yourself to how other people successfully (or unsuccessfully) use language, narrative, syntax, and other elements to communicate with you. Do it often enough, and you’ll start to absorb what you see.
Reading isn’t simply a question of understanding the mechanics, though. Evidence shows that reading increases our ability to empathize with other people. Given that a large part of effective writing is understanding who you’re writing for and attempting to influence them, the importance of empathy is huge. For fiction writers, it allows them to create colorful characters and to step into their shoes. But even if you’re simply writing an email, being well-read enables you to think about which ideas and words will resonate with the recipient.
So, what should you read? Some people would say anything that you can get your hands on, from classic novels to junk mail. Although, this broad approach isn’t the most practical if you’re trying to fit more reading into an already packed schedule. Instead, aim to mix it up. Balance the books you like to read for pleasure with reading that supports the type of work you do. Then, on occasion, branch out and read something you wouldn’t ordinarily choose. This way, you’ll pick up new techniques and perspectives while challenging yourself.
While you’ll absorb plenty of useful information simply by reading, you also need to actively think about what you read. Don’t worry; you don’t need to hark back to the days of book reports in school and overthink every metaphor or symbol you encounter. It’s more about asking questions.
Think about the language the writer used. Is it formal? Informal? How about the sentence length and structure? Did you find it easy to follow, or did you get lost in places? Did a particular sentence or paragraph jump out at you? Why?
It’s important to think about the impact a piece had on you. For example, if you feel informed and enthusiastic after reading a blog post, try to work out why that was. It might help to contrast it with something that left you feeling frustrated or confused to see if you can define some practical steps one writer took that the other didn’t.
This isn’t a practice that’s limited to editorial and creative content. Think about people you communicate with via email. Is there someone whose emails always leave you feeling positive? Frustrated? Pay attention to the words and style they used to see if you can identify what they do that makes you feel a certain way.
“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery – it’s the sincerest form of learning.” – George Bernard Shaw
Indeed, imitation is an essential factor in skill development. After observing an expert and analyzing their actions, the logical next step is to copy and try for the same result. However, this is often a step people overlook in writing because they’re understandably concerned about plagiarism and being authentic.
Think about this for a second: nearly everyone who learns to play a musical instrument does so by playing other people’s music. Why should this learning technique be exclusive to music? Just because it seems daunting (or even impossible) to try imitating Shakespeare or Vonnegut doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a try.
Imitating someone else’s writing style on paper helps you turn those theoretical ideas about their techniques into working knowledge. It might also help you notice things about what they do that you hadn’t before.
While you should share our ways to improve your writing technique with colleagues, maybe who you choose to imitate should be kept to yourself. Imitating your boss’s writing style in an email that you intend to send isn’t a sensible idea. Instead, editor and writing coach Lisa Poisso advises going through several iterations. The first, a direct imitation, and then another that’s more you. This way, you’ll start to adapt their techniques into something of your own. Also, if you do this for various people and styles of writing, not only will you get a better sense of your personal style, you’ll distance yourself from the worry of copying any one person too closely. Of course, you’ll also pick up a variety of valuable habits in the process.
4. Be Mindful
There are certain basic things to watch out for when you settle down to write. Be mindful of these tips while you write (and importantly, while you edit) to keep your writing focused:
- Who are you writing for and why? – This will help you decide on the content, structure, and register (or tone) to use.
- Consider length and structure of sentences – Varying your sentence length and structure helps readers stay engaged and process what you’re saying.
- Avoid empty words– These are meaningless words and phrases that dilute the power of what you’re saying and erode a reader’s interest.
- Don’t overuse buzzwords, jargon, or cliches – Buzzwords can put a reader off, disguising the point you’re trying to make. They can be useful when deployed carefully. Jargon can help you communicate quickly with a niche audience, while cliches can set your reader at ease with familiarity. Just make sure you know exactly why you’re using a term, rather than regarding it as a shortcut.
Like you would with learning any other skill, you need to practice writing regularly. Practice helps you improve and encourages certain aspects of effective writing to become second nature.
Common advice for improving writing is to develop a writing habit. This involves setting aside time on a regular basis to devote to writing. Using these 5 simple ways to improve your writing technique is a great start.
There are numerous benefits a routine writing practice, including:
- The power of repetition
- Managing your anxiety
- Overcoming the feeling of being creatively blocked
Many people who promote the idea of writing habits suggest that you should be writing every day. However, you might find that intimidating or impractical. Set a writing goal that works for you, whether 10 minutes every morning or 30 minutes on Saturday afternoon. Consistency and dedication are what really matter.
What you write is up to you. You could work on something connected to your professional life, like an article or white paper. You might try your hand at creative writing, like short stories or poetry. If you don’t feel confident with either of these, journaling can also improve your writing. Journaling even has even been shown to have benefits for your mental health. Then there’s freewriting: recording thoughts as they come to you, without worrying about being coherent or staying on a particular topic. Experimenting with writing constraints might also be a good way to motivate yourself.
You could also improve your writing indirectly by working on connected skills. In addition to these ways to improve your writing technique, arming yourself with a broad vocabulary will help your writing become more accurate and expressive. Improving your typing speed and accuracy could help to make the physical act of writing easier.
Read, Think and Practice
Becoming a better writer first involves becoming a better reader and a better thinker. By exposing yourself to good writing, bad writing, and everything in between, you will find it easier to recognize the techniques to make your own writing more effective. Borrow those techniques, use them and then make them your own.
These five proven techniques for more effective writing will go a long way to improving how you collaborate and communicate within your organization, boosting your overall productivity. Like with any other skill, effective writing takes a lot of practice. Getting something down on paper on a regular basis is the only guaranteed way to improve as a writer. Not only the writing practice but the practice of reading, analyzing, imitation and mindfulness as well. Put the time in and you might be pleasantly surprised by just how much you can achieve with words.