Want to become a better writer? Here are 4 secrets [and 1 exercise!] you can’t do without

Great writing is rocket scienceThere are two kinds of people.

The ones who think writing is easy …

… and the ones who know better.

The last group is the writers.

My claim may seem counterintuitive to you. But the more you learn about writing and the more you practice the craft – the more it comes to resemble aerospace engineering (a.k.a. rocket science, courtesy of my friend, Wiki).

In rocket science, there are rules to follow and estimates to make. So it is with writing. Some rules you need to follow, no questions asked. As for the rest, well, you’re free to mold them into the shapes of your desires. As long as you do your molding in the most elegant and persuasive way you can think of.

Does the ‘elegant and persuasive’ part make you backtrack a little bit on your commitment to become a skillful writer?

It shouldn’t.

Let’s take a closer look at four writing secrets that seem daunting, but really are inspiring.

Later, we’ll dive into the world of grammar, but first, here are 4 tricks to fuel your creativity and set your writing career flying.

Writing secret #1: You need style

Do you know Charlotte from Charlottes Web? How about Stuart from Stuart Little? If you know these tiny creatures, you also know E. B. White.

Besides his intriguing children’s stories, E. B. White is also known for co-authoring a very influential book on writing called The Elements of Style. Despite being one of the shortest books on writing out there, the book will teach you the fundamentals of great writing. The book is awesome. You should read it.

What you will also learn by getting to know E. B. White is that style has more to do with who you are than what you know (you should still read to book, though).

I take this to mean that if you’re not there, right in the middle of or in between the lines of your text, you have no style at all. Ouch!

Your style is your own personal way of writing. It’s how your passion comes through. So before you publish your next piece of copy, stop for a minute and think about this:

If the article came without your logo or company name, would the readers be able to guess who wrote it? 

If not, then you need to work on it some more. Have an opinion. Have some humor. Have the guts to be different.

I don’t want anonymous copy. I want you!

Writing secret #2: You need creativity

I know.

Creativity is one of those words. We misuse it and it becomes meaningless. But here’s something you might not know about web copy and creativity:

Creative does not mean original.

How to become a better writerMany people take creative to mean original in the sense that they have to come up with something new, as in never seen before on the world wide web.

Sounds impossible, right?

That’s because it is.

Every word and subject is taken. If you demand originality, your fingers will never hit the keyboard, and there will never be an article in cyberspace with your name on it.

You need to change the way you think about creativity.

Being creative means to find a new angle on an existing thought, problem, subject, buzzword, or epic conundrum. You might disagree with somebody about a certain way of doing things in your business.

Write about it.

You’re sure you can write a more thorough and well-structured article than your competitor.

Do it.

You excel in using imagery in your writing.

Utilize it.

If writing fills you with passion, you’ve got most of the new angle right there, in your mind. If you’re not afraid of being part of the text, that’s a new angle in and of itself.

Good for you.

Now, go nail that piece of copy.

Writing secret #3: You need to read

Yes. A lot.

And I don’t just mean E. B. White’s book. I mean all the books you can possibly make time for. Fiction as well as non-fiction.

When you read, you learn a bunch without even noticing it. Your vocabulary increases and you become more articulate. You start to notice how writers evoke feelings and structure their texts. And when you become nerdy, you get yourself a swipe file.

Read to become a better writerWhat’s that now?

Yes, I said swipe file.

Writing is artistry, and artists are allowed to steal and repurpose. A swipe file is a book, a virtual document, or a scrap of paper you keep close while reading. You use it to jot down everything that makes you smile and think:

Damn, I wish I’d written that!

It can be a whole sentence or just an ingenious combination of two words that don’t usually get to play together.

Before you know it, you have your own little writer’s treasure chest to help you personalize your copy.

Don’t have time to read?

Well, let me repeat something Stephen King says in his book on writing:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.

So make time.

Writing secret #4: You need to edit

In the beginning, I told you that some people think writing is easy. Those people typically have no fear of the empty document.

Ambitious writers, however, know the great struggle that lies ahead.

It all starts with an idea. The idea then has to come down on paper as fast as possible. This is when you just write. Write like your life depended on it and don’t look back. Mistakes are mandatory. The chance of making a mess is 100%. It’s okay. Drafting your copy should be fun.

Now comes the trouble.

It’s time for editing.

Editing will put some hair on your chest–and make you pull a few out of your head in pure frustration.

Some people skip this part entirely and go straight to publish, hence their lack of fear of the process.

You don’t because you’re a writer.

Editing your copy is supposed to hurt. This is when you cut, correct, and straighten out. It’s when you clean up your messy draft and make it shine. Every writer has his or her weaknesses, and editing will make you confront yours. Doing so makes you a better writer. So edit. For the love of words, edit.

But don’t strive for perfection.

There’s no such thing.

#5: Writing rules closed off to interpretation

The first four rules of this post are the ones you can bend to your desires. Now let’s look at some grammar rules that you have to follow, no questions asked.

You might be wondering what all the fuzz is about. I grammar really that big a deal?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Why?

Because your readers are smart. And every grammatical error they spot is a blow to your credibility. The reader is thinking:

Jeez, if she can’t get the words right, what else can’t she get rigth? Maybe I should take my business somewhere else.

I’m sure you agree that that would be catastrophic. You don’t want that, do you?

You’re allowed a slip-up once in a while – we’re all human. But continue to not pay attention to your writing, and your reputation will suffer.

Before we dive into some of the most common grammatical errors (which I’ve arranged as a test), I’ll provide you with a few basic bullet points that will markedly improve your writing.

Vary your sentences

Like impressive LEGO structures, your text consists of building blocks. Those building blocks are sentences. No one in their right mind would build a LEGO house entirely from blocks that have the same color and size. Such a house would be immensely boring.

So why construct your text like that?

Make sure to vary both sentence length and structure.

Include tons of white space

Writing for the web is not like writing a book or a newspaper article. When it comes to books, people willingly dive into massive walls of text. On the internet – not so much.

Therefore, you have to familiarize yourself with the enter-button. Keep your paragraphs as short as possible, and when it makes sense to break after just a line or so, do it.

Remember that a lot of people read on smartphones and tablets. And what might seem like a palatable paragraph length on a pc will look impossible on a small phone screen.

So who’s your friend?

That’s right.

Enter.

Use the active voice

The passive voice is like a damp plastic bag over the head of your text slowly suffocating the life out of it. That’s why your job is to clear the text of as much passive voice as possible. Preferably all of it, so your words can breathe freely again.

In a passive voice sentence, the subject of the sentence receives the action instead of doing it. The passive voice takes away the actor.

Let me give you an example:

Passive language: The web copy is cleared of all the passive language. (Who did the clearing, I wonder?)

Active language: I cleared the web copy of all the passive language. (I did it!)

Try to use the active voice whenever you’re writing. Small changes have a great impact!

Talk to me

I know that you’re probably writing on behalf of a company and that you want to address a large audience.

But when you’re writing a text, and I’m reading it, it’s just you and me. Maybe ‘you’ is ‘we’, but you’re definitely not ‘the company’ and the reader is never ‘people’. It’s me and you.

Therefore, refer to yourself as ‘I’, and talk to me by using the second-person singular, aka ‘you’.

Want to test your grammar skills?

So, how about that test I mentioned a couple of minutes ago?

Studies show that people find it hard to resist grammar tests online, and while I would never dare call you average, I’m willing to bet that you can’t resist ’em either …

Here’s how it works: Simply pick out the correct sentence (A, B, C, and/or D) in the following pairs of sentences. You’ll find the correct answers at the bottom of the article. (No, the test is not interactive – so sorry!)

#1: Their vs. they’re

A: The copywriter and the content marketer were great friends and loved their jobs.

B: The copywriter and the content marketer were great friends and loved they’re jobs.

#2: Less vs. fewer

A: The text should have 200 words or fewer.

B: The text should have 200 words or less.

#3: Me vs. I

A: When you’ve written the article, run it by Emma and I.

B: When you’ve written the article, run it by Emma and me.

#4: Me vs. I

A: Emma and I would love to read your article.

B: Me and Emma would love to read your article.

#5: You’re vs. your

A: You’re most recent blog post is wicked-good.

B: Your most recent blog post is wicked-good.

Test your grammar skills#6: Its vs. it’s

A: He thinks its a good idea to have a content marketing strategy.

B: He thinks it’s a good idea to have a content marketing strategy.

#7: Who vs. whom

A: Who wrote your latest blog post?

B: Whom wrote your latest blog post?

C: To whom did you send your latest blog post?

D: To who did you send your latest blog post?

#8: Possessive

A: All the content writers’ heads were bursting with ideas.

B: All the content writer’s heads we’re bursting with ideas.

#9: Lie vs. lay

A: She lie down her book and started writing.

B: She lay down her book and started writing.

#10: Lie vs. lay

A: He wanted to lay down for a moment before he decided on a headline.

B: He wanted to lie down for a moment before he decided on a headline

 

That’s it.

I hope you enjoyed our little sitdown so much that you’ll come back soon. I’m sure your next blog post will be awesome.

By the way … If you have questions regarding the grammar test, let me know!

 

#1: A, #2: A, #3: B, #4: A, #5: B, #6: B, #7: A + C, #8: A, #9: B, #10: B

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