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OWNER'S MANUAL

10 Quick Tips to Become a Better Writer

It's not about being a highly skilled artist; you just just need to become a better technician with words. Here's how.

Dear Jeff,

I feel like I spend most of my day writing. I mostly write emails but I also do reports, project justifications, and analysis papers.  Not only am I slow I also am not very good. How can I improve short of having to take a technical writing class?—Erin Jameson

If you think you aren’t a good writer, it’s probably because you’ve gotten hung up on the “craft” of writing.  It’s really hard to write well when you’re worried about how you write.

But unless you’re somebody like Nicholas Sparks and you write novels guys hate because you make us all look like insensitive jerks by comparison, style is basically irrelevant.

Writing is all about achieving a goal. Results are all that matters. Whether it’s emails, proposals, reports… good writing gets things done.

So don’t worry about being an artist. Be a technician.

Here’s how:

Start with your goal. It sounds selfish, but when you write you want something: To educate, to instruct, to convince, to sell, to build a relationship, etc. (If you don’t want to accomplish something there’s no reason to write.) Determine exactly what you hope to accomplish. That drives everything.

Organize in bullets. For now forget complete paragraphs and sentences. Just break your goal(s) into bullet points. If you’re justifying a project, list the four major benefits. If you’re trying to build a relationship, list the three things you will offer to do.

Your bullets should support your goal. If they don’t, you either don’t know what you hope to accomplish or how you will accomplish it.

Then determine your structure. Now you can worry about formatting and style. Roughly speaking, use lists (bullets or numbers) when you have discreet points to make. Lists make the process of writing a lot easier.

Just keep in mind lists come across as impersonal and less than friendly. Avoid lists if your goal is to say thanks, show appreciation, or congratulate the reader. No one wants to read the top five reasons their speech was awesome.

And don’t force a list. If each point can’t at least partly stand on its own without lengthy explanation your bullets aren’t tight enough.

Otherwise, make lists your friends. Lists make the writing process a lot easier while making your main points more memorable.

Eliminate the obvious. I didn't start this post with the obligatory “excellent writing skills are incredibly important in every profession or business” lead. If you don't think good writing is important, you aren't reading this anyway. Whenever possible skip the intros and get to the point.

For example, if you’re detailing your reasoning behind a project request, leave out anything the reader already knows. “Here are the reasons we should proceed” may be all you need.

Never try to force a style. Your personal style is not your personal style if you have to think about it. Just write like you talk, you know, only like without the “um” and “you know” and “like” stuff.

Be direct. Verbs are good. Nouns are good. Long, flowery, convoluted sentences are bad. (I should know. I write them all the time.) That's why you should always...

Cut a third. Rough drafts are naturally wordy because you’re thinking as you write.

After you finish a draft, pretend you have to cut out a third of what you’ve written. The result will be tighter, more powerful, and a lot more to the point. I cut my Negotiating for Wimps post in half when I edited it, and as I re-read it I think it's still a little wordy. That's why you should...

Treat your writing like wine and let it breathe. It’s easy to slip on beer goggles when you write: You get into the flow,  fall in love with a clever phrase, and suddenly everything you write looks incredible... but then you wake up horrified the next day.

I have never written anything I did not later feel could be improved. (Like that last sentence.) Rewrites are much easier when you step away and return with fresh eyes. If your goal is important, always start early enough that you can let what you write sit for at least a few hours before you give it a final edit.  Just make sure that you also…

Be yourself. Good writing is a reflection of your thoughts, your ideas, and your reasoning. The key word in that sentence is “your.”

Ask friends and colleagues for input. Let other people proofread. But don't try to wring out every ounce of character. It's your writing—it should reflect you.

And finally…

Make sure the reader knows what you want. Results are everything. If the reader can’t tell what you want—to make a decision, to take certain actions, to respond by a certain time, or just to feel complimented or appreciated—then you failed. Don't write unless you have a meaningful point to make.

Once you have that, the words are easy.

Have a question? Email questions@blackbirdinc.com and it may appear in a future column. Please indicate if you would like your name and company name to appear.

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Last updated: Feb 16, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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