Improve Your Writing by Relearning the Fundamentals

And the books you need to reread to do it

It’s alarming how much of our life is spent on autopilot. Our brains are so good at minimizing their required effort that even the most complex tasks, with enough repetition, can be done while paying little (or no) attention.

You see this process at work when you arrive at your destination with no memory of the drive there, or when you spend two minutes brushing your teeth each day while never actually focusing on the act itself.

Any activity you engage in repeatedly is vulnerable to this autopilot phenomenon, and as content marketers and writers, you can bet that includes the act of writing.

The War of Quality Attrition

But wait, doesn’t some of the best writing happen when it feels like you’re barely trying? When you’re in a state of flow? Absolutely. We’ve all had those miraculous pieces that seem to flow out of us effortlessly, and I’d never wish to take those moments away from any writer.

No, what I’m talking about is the daily grind of a writing job. The blog posts, marketing copy, and essays that we become so used to writing that they feel effortless. That type of ease can be problematic, because it forces you to focus less on the specifics of what you’re writing. You lose focus on the craft, on the rules and regulations that govern good writing. This is a sneaky kind of problem because it doesn’t happen all at once, but over the course of dozens upon dozens of writing projects.

The parts of speech, how they are arranged, and how they relate are not a priority anymore by the time you’ve hit your 100th blog post. You know the structure that needs to be followed and you’re just filling it in mad-lib style.

This used to be a source of pride for me. I’d often brag about how fast I could complete a blog post.

This used to be a source of pride for me. I’d often brag about how fast I could complete a blog post. Was I using parallel structure or active voice effectively? Was my subject-verb agreement flawless? Definitely not, but I was getting it done. But that type of attitude is a problem:

The Devil’s in the Details

Good writing requires precise construction. The best sentences are crafted with care and will standout on a page or a screen to your reader like a beautiful stranger in a forgettable crowd.

But all it takes is a careless error in subject/predicate agreement or a incorrectly conjugated verb and the illusion is broken.

Such errors are so specific to writers that they likely wont even register as errors to your audience. They’ll manifest as that feeling of “that part reads really weird,” or “that sounds a bit off.” They’re just noticeable enough to degrade the quality of your posts and the experience of your reader.

However, it’s the flip side of that coin that we’re really after. A precise, well balanced, and well constructed sentence can be a catalyst to a whole host of benefits. Stronger writing increases your perceived credibility, makes your writing easier to follow, and improves the customer experience. While ideas and content are important, it’s the style of your sentences that impact your message most. So how do you refocus on these important details? You take your writing back to basics.

Taking Yourself Back to School

Over the past few weeks I’ve been rereading some of the most fundamental writing books in history. I felt more than a little foolish as a professional writer of 10 years sitting on a plane reading “How to Write a Sentence,” but the positive impact of rereading these books was immediate. I noticed it in three distinct areas:

A More Critical Eye: The way I started to edit my work changed. I wasn’t just looking for misspellings or odd phrasing. I was looking critically at the structure of my sentences and was ashamed of the ungraceful way I was throwing ideas together.

A Deeper Base of Knowledge: I rediscovered important grammatical rules like long-lost friends and discovered new ones I never even learned in the first place.

A Passion for the Craft: I remembered what a true craft writing well can be. It’s an art form in a lot of ways, and I’d forgotten the type of mastery that should go into every written piece.

I think it’s so important for every writer to have the same experience:

So if you’re looking to brush up on the basics and reconnect with the true craft of writing, these are the three books I’d recommend most:

These are by no means the only books out there and a good writer should also read widely, but these are the three I found most helpful in reconnecting the dots in writing logic and brushing up on the fundamentals. Are there any I missed? How do you stay on op of your writing game? Let me know in the comments below.

About the author: Matt Wesson is the Director of Content & Creative at SalesLoft. Follow him on Twitter or see more articles on his LinkedIn page.