Among his many other accomplishments, Benjamin Franklin was one of the most well-respected writers of his time but that wasn’t always the case. Earlier on in his career at one point, Benjamin Franklin found himself in the midst of an epistolary duel, which, basically just means he was arguing with somebody through letter writing. And at one point during this argument, Benjamin Franklin’s father found these letters and in a typical dad fashion took the opportunity to tell old Ben just how bad his writing was.
Now most of us probably wouldn’t want our dads critiquing our writing we get a little defensive but Benjamin Franklin took this criticism to heart and in response, he started seeking out the best writing he could get his hands on so he could deliberately study it and start honing his writing craft and through this process he became that well-respected writer and thinker.
Now you might not have become the most well-respected writer of my generation at the top of your to-do list but even if that’s not the case improving your writing skills is one of the best things you can do for moving forward in your career and becoming a better communicator.
So today I want to share five huge tips for improving your writing whether it’s a cover letter or a novel. I am going to tell you about ways to improve how often you write building a writing habit but I’ll also tell you some ways to improve the clarity of your writing and also how interesting it is.
Let’s actually start there with this interestingness angle. How do you make your own writing more interesting and more fun to read?
Well, this reminds me of a quote I once read somewhere or maybe I made it up I’m not sure but it goes like this,
“An interesting person is an interested person.”
In other words, if you want your writing to have some flair to it go out and apply your interest both to cool experiences but also to learn from a wide variety of sources.
Tip Number One — Read Widely
As the author of Cormac Mccarthy once put it,
“Books are made out of books”
And the best authors are the ones who have a wide repertoire of experiences and knowledge and different authors they’ve read to pull from so they can take things and creatively mash them up into something you’ve never read before.
If you only read one author or one genre then your writing is gonna feel kinda same it’s like trying to cook a chicken with nothing but black pepper on your spice rack.
If you want to make something truly delicious and truly interesting to eat then you may want to have some more spices on that spice rack. To expand your reading palette and if you want to do this in a way similar to how Ben Franklin did it and also try to actively engage with what you read as well.
One good way to do this is when you come across a phrase or passage that you really like, pause, ask yourself. Well, how would I write this or how would another author that I really like write this and then asking yourself this question going through this mental remixing exercise you’re engaging with the material in a way that’s much more intense than if you just read it and then passed on.
I’m also in the habit of highlighting these passages and saving them to my read-wise. So I can come back to them and ponder them sometimes this is one that has been stuck in my head particularly as of late.
Actively engaging with a wide array of material is a great way to sort of building an armory of different weapons you can use for different challenges, different situations but if you want to be able to use them to wield them well then you need to write often. Build the skill of writing and as you probably know writing often is kind of hard to do.
I see writing as a kind of like riding a bicycle. It’s all about building momentum and that first initial challenge of getting on the bike is usually the hardest one. After that a lot of times you can coast put a little bit of effort in and keep moving forward. So how do you build that initial bit of momentum? So one way you can do this is to build for yourself a writing ritual.
Tip Number Two — Build a Writing Ritual
Writing ritual is basically a set of habits that make getting into the writing process a little bit easier at least get you over that resistance and this can involve writing in a specific place or having a list of things that you do before you start writing.
Having a specific writing place, even, a place that’s kind of not all that pleasant can be helpful. You can also have certain habits in your writing ritual as well. Maybe having some noise-canceling headphones that let you have some more control over the environment where you’re writing. Maybe having a specific playlist that you’d like to write to. Maybe having a specific scent or a specific drink like having a candle that you write with or making a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, whatever, it is finding your writing ritual and use it to get over that writing resistance.
I use the bike metaphor before and I stand by the belief that starting is the hardest part but just like bike writing is about keeping the momentum going. When you’re in a session you want to keep the flow going so you can keep creating things coming out of your brain and onto the page and one of the biggest killers of that momentum is editing while you write.
Tip Number Three — Write Now, Edit Later
Write Now, Edit Later is to separate your writing process from your editing process. When you edit your writing when you see a sentence that you just wrote and you’re like I gotta go back and change that. I saw a spelling error. I gotta go back and fix that. You’re actually getting into a different state of mind. You’re doing a context switch and you’re now in a mind state that is less creative. You’ve arrested that momentum and if you’re constantly editing what you’ve just written then you really never get any good momentum going in the first place.
Another metaphor that I like to use for writing is of mining for gold. If you never get down to I don’t know 20 feet deep under the ground you’re never gonna get the gold in the first place.
So you have to build enough momentum to excavate a bunch of dirt — a bunch of not very useful stuff — to get to the point in a writing session where the real good gems come out you can come back and edit them later.
The other point of this is that you often don’t know what the end product is going to look like after you’ve gone through several different iterations. So it’s kind of pointless to try to do a first draft that’s perfect because it’s always going to change. A great example this may be my favorite comes from the cinematic masterpiece that is Emperor’s New Groove.
If you don’t know about the troubled history of this movie when it started out in development. It was supposed to be a much more serious story kind of in the vein of the lion king that kind of a feel and what we ended up with was this buddy comedy movie. One of disney’s best movies ever but very different than it initially had been conceptualized.
So just realize that what you start writing right now is probably not going to look anything like your final product. So just let yourself get ideas onto the paper like I say get a mess on the paper you can come back later and clean that mess up. It’s a lot easier than trying to craft something perfect from a blank page.
Tip Number Four — Read Out Laud
Let’s talk about the edit process now. You’ve got your first draft on the paper or on the computer screen and now you want to hone it and make it as good as it can be what’s the first step to doing that?
Well, I think a good first candidate is reading your writing out loud. Reading out loud can feel a bit awkward especially if there’s another person in the room. If you don’t do it you’re liable to gloss over things that could help make the reading experience less awkward for your reader and that’s really the most important thing.
Reading out loud not only exposes you to the rhythm of your writing but it also slows you down necessarily. When we read silently when we’re reading for comprehension we read between 200 to 400 words per minute on average. When we’re scanning through our own writing trying to find little things to fix. We go even faster than that and the faster you go the easier it is to skip over things but when we read out loud. Most people can’t read comfortably out loud at more than 150 words per minute and at that pace it’s very easy to pick out spelling errors, grammar issues, or opportunities, to simplify.
Tip Number Five — Simplify
There is this great quote in the book on Writing Well from the author William Zinser,
“…the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
I want to give you a great example of this back in World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aides put out this statement and this is a mouthful,
“Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.”
President Roosevelt took that and changed it to this,
“Tell them that buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”
He removed 20 words from the original sentence and the ones that were remaining got way way simpler and in doing so he communicated so much more because the original blurb of text actually communicated nothing to most people.
If you felt your brain kind of sliding out of your ear when I read that first blurb you’re not alone it was a bunch of jargon. It was almost impossible to understand and sometimes your own writing takes on a similar quality. Sometimes we’re trying to sound smart use big vocabulary. Sometimes we don’t even really consider the simplicity and it gets a little bit too complex.
The simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean stripping things down to as few words as possible because sometimes words add color, words add description, they make things more vivid and interesting. But a lot of times words are there just because we want them to be there.
We have a lot of I think trauma from our teachers telling us word limits that we had to hit for essays in high school, in elementary school and a lot of times we’re trying to use big words that make us sound a little bit intelligent.
But from a reader’s perspective they would almost always rather have you use the word “use” then “utilize” words then lexicon. Because it’s easier to parse, easier understand. These big words don’t really add anything to the reading experience.