How to be a better writer by ignoring writing advice
I am a writer.
I am also a card-carrying member of sci-fi/fantasy geekdom. Of course, that means I’m a fan of The Lord of the Rings movies. They and their Hobbit prequels are epics that deserve all the acclaim and cult worship they have received.
But (and this may get me kicked out of the Geek Club permanently) I have never read the books.
And not for lack of trying.
Years before the movies came out someone gifted me a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Intrigued, I sat down to read it that same day.
I never finished the first chapter.
Once I’d seen the movies, though, I knew my younger self had missed out on something exceptional. So I sat down again to read The Hobbit.
And I still couldn’t finish the first chapter.
Just recently, wanting to enjoy a fanciful tale, and knowing that inside that book is a story of heroism and friendship, dragons and magic, I again sat down to read The Hobbit.
Not two paragraphs in I put the book down and faced this simple fact: I don’t like Tolkien’s writing.
What makes for good writing?
If a nobody like me, can find fault with the work of a celebrated author like Tolkien, who, then, gets to judge what makes writing “good?”
As a writer, myself, I have read more than one handbook doling out advice on how to be a good writer.
I’ve also witnessed heated exchanges between talented writers debating what good writing looks like.
"Write simply and use small words,” says one.
“Simple writing is bland writing,” says another.
“Poor grammar is the hallmark of poor writing,” argue some.
“Fear not mistakes, express yourself,” encourage others.
“Write what you know,” is a common refrain.
“Explore new topics!” I exclaim.
So who’s right?
Individual tastes in writing are as varied as individual preferences in music. Reading and writing is a very personal experience. As a writer, you will be judged not only by your linguistic proficiency, but your choice of topic, viewpoint, style, and voice.
That’s why no one can teach you how to be a “perfect” writer. There is no such thing.
But there are certain things that make your writing better.
I take a fairly liberal attitude toward English grammar. I won’t judge any writer too harshly for a sentence fragment or a misplaced modifier. Make three or four grammatical errors in a single paragraph, however, and it gets too damn hard to decipher what you’re trying to say.
Before you can create a great work, or even a halfway decent blog post, you have to be able to construct sentences and paragraphs that make sense. This means mastering proper grammar, usage, and punctuation.
Need help? A good place to start is with Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and the Grammar Girl blog by Mignon Fogarty. She is my go-to source for easy-to-understand grammar and usage lessons.
Focus on clarity
The real hallmark of bad writing is a lack of clarity.
If you’ve ever received a written reply – maybe to an email or text – and felt like the other person was engaged in an entirely different conversation, then you’ve experienced what can happen when your meaning isn’t clear.
There are several factors that can lead to a lack of clarity. First, there is bad grammar (covered above).
Then, there is a lack of organization and flow. This is what happens when you write in a stream of consciousness and fail to smoothly transition your reader from one thought to the next.
The final problem is perhaps the trickiest. There are times when your phrasing can have two or more legitimate interpretations. For instance, sarcastic comments can easily be taken literally by a reader, drastically changing their intended meaning.
Because you (the writer) always know what you mean to say, the best way to eliminate ambiguity from your writing is to employ a proofreader. If you don’t have a proofreader, wait several hours – or preferably days – then reread what you wrote. You’ll be surprised how different your words can sound when read with fresh eyes.
Find your own voice
If there were a formula for good writing, somebody at Google would have created an algorithm to put us writers out of business by now. But what sets great writing apart from good writing (and good writing apart from average writing) is its humanity.
Some writers attract an audience because they are highly opinionated, making strong points with clever witticisms. Other writers have an incredible sense of humor and consistently bring joy to their readers. Some writers have mastered the art of brevity, while others can keep an audience captivated through lengthy and esoteric pros. It’s all a matter of style. And that’s is something no writing tip, trick, hack, or rule can give you.
In fact, the greatest lessons I’ve learned about “writing well” have not come from studying how to be a great (or even good) writer but from reading great writers.
The best way to improve your writing is to emulate artists you admire as you develop your own voice.
If you’re not a writer, that’s OK
Not everyone wants to be a writer. But our modern economy heavily favors written communication. Web sites, blog posts, social media, press releases, op-eds, business reports… your economic future may depend on promoting yourself or your business in writing.
What if English is your second (or third, or fourth) language and you struggle with grammar? Or you have trouble wrangling your thoughts into an organized flow? Or you’ve got a hundred other priorities and need to focus elsewhere?
Because I am a writer, and writers like me have been helping non-writers like you since the invention of the written word. Personally, I specialize in marketing writing. But there are professional writers who can help with technical writing, grant writing, book writing, and resume writing, too.
So for you non-writers, my writing tip is simple: outsource it.
Alexa Steele is an American copywriter and marketing consultant. If you have a question about writing great marketing content, please feel free to ask in the comments below. And if you liked this post please give it a buzz.