If you think you’re a weak writer, you may think that there isn’t much you can do about it. After all, when it comes to being a strong writer, you either have what it takes or you don’t. Right?
We don’t think so.
When you watch colleagues craft elegant emails or blog posts in what feels like the blink of an eye, it can be hard to believe that the difference between them and you isn’t a magical superpower that they got and you didn’t. In reality, though, what separates strong writers from weak writers isn’t a superpower, a writing gene, or a truckload of luck. Instead, it’s a set of beliefs and habits.
Here are the six beliefs and habits that may be holding you back from being a better writer:
1. You have distorted beliefs about what good writing is
If you’re like a lot of people, you may believe that good writing involves using long words that seem like they’ve been plucked straight from the verbal section of the SAT or the GRE. In our blog post on using long vs. short words in writing, we talked about how a lot of people think that using long, complex words (e.g., “visualization,” “calculation,” and “optimization”) makes them seem smarter.
People who believe that long words are better than short ones tend to do things like these:
- Turn verbs into nouns
- Use a long word when a shorter option exists
- Stuff their sentences with prepositions
- Use redundant and unnecessary phrases
- Write in passive voice instead of in active voice
Take a look at something you wrote recently. Do these habits characterize your writing? If they do, you may have a tendency to write sentences that are wordier than they need to be.
So why are wordy sentences bad? They make your reader’s job harder. When people read, they have to stitch together the information represented by each word on the fly. Sentences that contain long words have more complex pieces that need to be stitched together.
But won’t writing simple sentences make you look less intelligent? No. Experts in a field know that it’s much harder to explain a complex topic (e.g., quantum physics) using simple words than it is to explain that same topic using long, complex words. Why? Because you really need to know your stuff to explain a complex topic concisely. In fact, there’s scientific evidence to show that authors of a piece of writing look less intelligent when the writing contains long words instead of short ones.
So how do you get used to writing shorter and simpler sentences? Here are some quick tips:
- If you can replace a noun with a verb, do it
- If you can think of a shorter word to use, do it
- If you can get rid of a preposition, do it
- If you can get rid of a word or phrase because it’s already implied by other words in your sentence, do it
- If you can write in active voice (and you probably can), do it
For those of you who want a more detailed and comprehensive strategy for trimming your sentences, check out our post on 16 tips for reducing your word count. You’ll also find tips for writing clear and simple sentences in our ebook on writing concisely. You can download a free copy of the ebook here.
2. You’re using other people’s bad writing as examples
One of the things that makes it so hard for people to become better writers is that there’s so much bad writing out in the world. And when we say that there’s a lot of bad writing out there, we’re not referring just to blogs, social media posts, or websites – writing that often doesn’t get reviewed before being published. You can find examples of weak and ungrammatical writing in major newspapers, academic journals, and even books about how to write well!
For example, take a look at this excerpt from a book about writing good content:
“Or until you’re questioning things best left to the philosophers. As in: I want to drive interest and awareness in the launch of our new collaborative editing software.”
One of the most important things to know about colons (the punctuation kind, not the anatomy kind) is that you always need a full sentence before them. We explain this in our blog post on colons, and both Grammar Girl and Grammarly do too. In the excerpt above, the author used a colon even though the words that come before it (i.e., “as in”) don’t form a full sentence. As a result, the second sentence is ungrammatical.
As most people do, you probably have a certain level of trust in the publication system. You probably assume that anything that’s published in a seemingly credible newspaper, journal, or book is well written or at least grammatically correct. (After all, shouldn’t the piece have been edited by a good copyeditor before being published?) As a result, you may use these sources as examples of good writing even if they aren’t.
And it isn’t just newspapers and books that aren’t guaranteed to be good models of strong writing. Bosses and mentors also aren’t always reliable sources of good writing. Some bosses and mentors are great writers, but the skills required to lead and manage a team don’t always go hand in hand with good writing skills. Be aware that not every boss or mentor will be able to spot your writing mistakes, and some will even suggest changes to your writing that would make it weaker instead of stronger. Note that we’re not trying to make you question your boss’s skills. We’re just mentioning that not everyone in a position of authority is a good writer.
So how do you overcome this barrier to good writing? Try using the grammar and usage sections of styles guides (e.g., The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, The Economist Style Guide, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association) as a reference for grammar and usage issues. For guidance about higher-level aspects of writing (e.g., organizing sentences and paragraphs), check out resources developed by credible experts. Here are just some examples:
- “Bird By Bird: Instructions on Writing And Life” by Anne Lamott
- “On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft” By Stephen King
- “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction” By William Zinsser
- “Revising Prose” By Richard Lanham
- “The Elements of Style” By William Strunk Jr. And E. B. White
- “The Sense of Style” By Steven Pinker
And remember, even the best writers and copyeditors make mistakes, so don’t assume that everything you see in print (or online) is correct.
3. You hold yourself to an unreasonably high standard
One of the most common reasons why people have trouble drafting a blog post, report, or essay is that they think their first draft needs to be perfect. If you can relate to this, you’re probably someone who has to get each word in a sentence just right before moving on to writing the next one. This perfectionist anxiety can paralyze you to the point where you can sit in front of a computer for an entire hour and end up with only a couple of sentences on the page.
The good news is that there are three things you can do to tame your inner perfectionist and get more down on the page:
First, recognize that your first draft can be as ugly as it needs to be. Even the best writers often start off with horrendous first drafts. Remember that a first draft isn’t about creating a masterpiece; it’s about getting all of the key elements onto the page so that you can play around with them during the editing phase. No one needs to see your real first draft (even if you have to send someone an “initial draft” at some point), so don’t worry about what it looks like.
Second, if you get stuck in a sentence because you can’t think of the right word or phrase to write, insert a line or “XXX” as placeholder text and keep writing. You can go back and fill it in later. You’ll often find that taking a break from that part of the sentence helps you figure out how to fill it in more effortlessly later on. We talk more about this strategy in our blog post on writing quickly.
Third, if you’re really struggling to get anything down onto the page, try doing a brain dump. Set a timer for two minutes, and once it starts, write whatever comes to mind continuously until the timer stops. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or how your words sound. Just get the thoughts in your head down onto the page. You can clean it all up later.
4. You forget that writing is only one part of the writing process
Another thing that can make you a weak writer is a tendency to leave out some of the most important parts of the writing process. You may think of writing as just drafting a document, looking it over for major typos, and sending it off. In reality, though, what most people think of writing (what we’ll call “drafting”) is just one small part of the writing process. The other two key steps are the planning stage and the editing stage.
The planning stage is when you take the time to think through why you’re writing a certain piece, who your audience or reader is, and what key pieces of info you need to include. For most people, it can be helpful to create an outline that includes the key points you want to make and the explanations, examples, or data that will support these points. If you take the time to create a detailed outline, you’ll have an easier time writing your first draft. You’ll also find that your first few drafts are more structured and comprehensive than they would be otherwise.
Note: we’re actually using this strategy right now to draft a grant proposal. We’re finding that the drafting stage is going so much more smoothly and quickly than we thought it would because we spent time creating a detailed 14-page outline.
We mentioned before that first drafts are often pretty ugly. This is why the editing stage is so important. Even if you write what seem to be pristine first drafts, the editing stage is key for improving the clarity of your main points, rearranging sections, filling gaps, removing unnecessary info, and correcting errors.
Strong writers often spend more time planning and editing a draft than they do writing it. So if you’re not planning or editing when you write, you’re leaving out key parts of the writing process.
Want to see a detailed example of how to plan, draft, and edit? Check out our step-by-step ebook on writing a med school personal statement. Even if you don’t have plans to apply to med school, the ebook can help you develop strategies for rocking all three major stages of the writing process.
5. You don’t set aside enough time to write
In the back of your mind, you may know that it’s a good idea to create an outline for a document and to spend time editing it. However, if you have a tendency to leave writing to the last minute, you may end up scrapping the planning and editing stages and sticking with the drafting stage only.
As we’ve discussed, first drafts almost always need a lot of work. So if you’re not giving yourself enough time to edit, you’re setting yourself up to end up with a blog post, report, or essay that’s much less refined than you want it to be. And if you skipped the planning stage too, your final document may be a far cry from what you initially envisioned.
To make sure that you end up with the best final document you can, start writing early and schedule the planning and editing stages into your work plan or planner. Because writing projects differ in length and complexity, it’s hard to provide a fixed number of hours to spend on the planning, drafting, and editing stages. However, you can usually count on the editing stage taking much longer than the drafting stage. And depending on the amount of detail you include in your writing plan or outline, your planning stage may take longer than the drafting stage too.
6. You don’t write regularly
If you can buy into our idea that writing is a skill instead of an innate talent (which we’re assuming you have if you’re still reading this), you’ll realize that writing is something that requires practice. You weren’t born knowing how to walk, ride a bike, or cook; you had to practice these skills by doing them over and over and over again. The same thing applies to writing.
Depending on the courses you took in school and how your academic semesters were structured, you may not have gotten many opportunities to write on a regular basis while you were in school. The same may be happening now. If you write only once a week or once every few weeks, you may not be giving yourself enough time to practice writing.
You can tackle this barrier by writing more frequently each week. Figure out how much time you can reasonably spend on writing tasks each week. Then, spread this time out over 3–5 days each week. The issue isn’t so much about how much time you spend writing each day but about how regularly you write. Have three hours to write each week? Spend an hour each day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Have just 1.5 hours? Spend 30 minutes writing on each of these days.
It can be easy to push writing tasks to the back burner, so you might find it helpful to schedule your writing time into your calendar. This will protect the time slot in your calendar and encourage you to schedule other tasks and meetings around it.
Want more details about how to develop a regular writing schedule? Check out Paul Silvia’s “How To Write A Lot.”
As you can see, writing well isn’t so much about having one specific talent or power as it is about having beliefs and habits that help you hone your writing over time. Of course, this means that being a good writer is something that requires hard work and time. You aren’t going to become a better writer overnight. It also means, though, that no matter where you’re starting, it’s within your power to learn how to write well.
Want to write better brand content, web copy, proposals, or essays? Check out our 12 tips on writing clearly. Download the ebook here.
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