Writing is far more challenging than speaking. Observe and you’ll know. Many more can speak well than who can write well. Even proficient writers face blank-screen syndrome (struggle to get started).
Probably, that’s why Kurt Vonnegut, an iconic writer, said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless, man with a crayon in his mouth.”
And William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, said, “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
Note that here we’re not talking of few quick lines that people write on social media, in SMSs, or in emails. Such writing is mostly junk writing. Here, we’re talking of writing that goes into essays, reports, proposals, and the like.
Let’s get straight into the topic.
This post has been organized into five sections so that you can progress naturally through the writing process. For example, the first one covers how to plan before you jump to writing. The next one is how to construct fine sentences, the building block of any writing. And so on.
The five sections we’ll cover are:
Section I: How to plan before you write? (Point # 1-3)
Section II: How to construct sentences? (Point # 4-10)
Section III: How to write coherent paragraphs? (Point # 11-16)
Section IV: What else can you do to become a better writer? (Point # 17-24)
Section V: Others (Point # 25-26)
Section I: How to plan before you write?
1. Prepare a structure – one idea, one paragraph
Ronald Kellogg, Psychology professor at Saint Louis University, has demonstrated that creating a structure improves writing process. Intuitively too we know that writing with a structure in hand is easier and more organized.
So, brainstorm different ideas on the topic you want to write on, and arrange them logically, one idea (or point) per paragraph.
For example, if you’re asked to write an essay on the ills of social media, this could be a structure:
Brief background so that the reader knows why s/he is reading the essay. For example, you may include how addictive social media has become, with few startling statistics on per day use. In the introductory paragraph, you may also mention how the essay will be organized so that the reader knows what’s coming.
At least few hours wasted every day [first idea]
People are moving from real relations to virtual relations [second idea]
Rumors spread fast on social media and some of them are leading to violence [third idea]
Stalking and other crimes [fourth idea]
Summarize. Most regurgitate what they’ve covered so far in few sentences, but if you want to write an outstanding summary, also add an opinion or where you see things going in future or the like.
Such structure will help you present your thoughts in a logical way that will be easy for others to follow.
2. Be empathetic
Great speakers speak at the level of their audience. Otherwise, most of their talk will go over the head.
Same holds for writing.
Understand your audience and tailor your writing accordingly. If you’re writing for college students, include examples they’ll relate with. If you’re writing on a technical topic to technology novices, simplify your writing through analogies and examples.
If your writing is off the mark on empathy, it’ll fail to cross arguably the biggest filter. So, at the planning stage itself, think what examples and other details will resonate with the audience.
3. Express opinions and share experiences
If you feel strongly about an issue, express your opinion. If you’ve relevant experience, share it. People want to read opinions and experiences, and not just another concoction of what they’ve already read.
Seth Godin stands out for his pithy, unique daily views on his blog. So does Gary Vaynerchuk in his YouTube videos for his inimitable no-holds-barred style. Andrew and Casey, referred in point #21, too stand out for sharing their experiences aplenty in their writings.
What’s your opinion? What have been your experiences relevant to the topic you plan to write on (for example, I’ve shared my experience of reviewing two books multiple times in the next point)?
Having said that, you shouldn’t express opinion where it isn’t required. Most reports will fall into this category.
After planning comes writing. But can you write without first constructing fine sentences? Let’s take up sentence-level issues in this section.
Section II: How to construct sentences?
4. Get proficient in grammar
Can you spot mistakes, if any, in the following sentences?
Here are the correct forms:
Without sound grasp on grammar, you can’t construct correct – let alone compelling – sentences, and as a result everything else falls. A sentence, after all, is the building block of any writing.
If you’re a beginner who’s not proficient in grammar, your end goal of learning grammar should be to write correct sentences. Parts of speech, tenses, gerund, infinitive, conjunction, and what not are means, not end. You should be able to combine these components to form sentences. That’s what matters. That’s the output people look at.
If you’re looking for resources on grammar and related topics, you may have a look at the post on grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary books.
A tip for those learning grammar and punctuation rules: revisit the material you referred again after few months, and then again after a longer gap. I bet, you’ll discover something new and significant every time. (I can say this from experience, as I’ve reviewed Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R L Trask and The Elements of Style by Strunk & White at least six times.) Moreover, every subsequent review takes less time than the previous review, and even if it takes some time, you shouldn’t flinch because you’ll use these rules the rest of your life.
5. Use active voice
Use active voice, not passive.
Active voice is direct and leaves little ambiguity on who is performing the action.
The first, in passive voice, doesn’t bring clarity on who has considered the evidence. The second, in active voice, does.
6. Avoid abstract language. Use concrete
Compare each sentence on the left with that on the right. Both intend to convey the same message, but in a different way:
|The weather is great today.||It’s sunny outside, but not too hot.|
|Weather has improved.||It has stopped raining and the sun is out again.|
|Despite one of the partners leaving us midway, we finished the project well ahead of time.||Despite one of the partners leaving us midway, we finished the project six days before the deadline.|
Sentences on both sides of the table do fine as far as rules of grammar are concerned, but the ones on right appeal far better to our senses.
The ones on right, concrete, vividly describe what’s happening – ‘sunny’, ‘not too hot’, ‘stopped raining’, ‘sun is out’, and ‘six days’. Whereas ‘great’, ‘improved’, and ‘well ahead of time’ leave lot to be imagined.
Make your sentences concrete.
7. Show relationship between sentences or clauses through appropriate words
Consider these three variants of the same sentence:
And two of another:
The first sentence in both the examples above use an additive word (‘and’) to link the two sentences. The additive word, however, doesn’t bring out the relationship between the two as clearly as other sentences (that use ‘but’, ‘nonetheless’, and ‘in contrast’).
In some places, however, an additive word brings out the relationship better:
We’re more inclined to use additive words, but many times they don’t serve the purpose, they don’t adequately bring out the relationship between two sentences or clauses. And when we do use non-additive words, we limit ourselves largely to few common ones such as ‘but’ and ‘because’.
Some of the common non-additive words that bring out relationships between sentences or clauses well are:
|Non-Additive Words||Non-Additive Words|
|On the contrary||Before|
(You may download the above table as image here.)
8. Write short sentences
So, avoid long sentences like the first one below:
9. Get proficient in punctuation, especially the common ones
Can you spot punctuation mistakes, if any, in the following sentences?
The correct forms are:
Learn punctuation, especially the common ones such as comma, quotation marks, apostrophe, hyphen, dash, and brackets. (Full stop and question marks are rarely the problem for most.) Pay special attention to comma as they can get tricky and they’re also used extensively.
10. Improve your active vocabulary
Not vocabulary. Active vocabulary.
Difference between active and passive vocabulary
You understand most words while reading, but you don’t use even a tiny fraction of them in your writing and speech. The words you understand but don’t use form your passive vocabulary. The ones you use form your active vocabulary.
Consider this sentence:
Most of you’ll understand the three underlined words when reading or listening, but only few of you use them in writing and speech. What about you?
The three words are part of your passive vocabulary, and common words such as ‘eat’, ‘sleep’, ‘write’, ‘walk’, and ‘late’ are part of active vocabulary for most of us.
Why a strong active vocabulary is important?
Because you need to use precise words to write effectively.
Consider following examples:
I’ve seen all three descriptions in use multiple times. The best description is the last one.
I hope you now understand why a strong active vocabulary is important in writing (and also speaking).
How to build active vocabulary?
In brief, explore words in dictionaries liberally. Go beyond meaning. Browse few example sentences where the word has been used. And, more importantly, use the word in your own sentences. That’s how you build active vocabulary.
A word of caution to end this section. Fancy words don’t make your writing look good. They do the opposite, in fact. So, to give two examples, prefer ‘argumentative’ over ‘cantankerous’ and ‘short-tempered’ over ‘irascible’.
We combine sentences to form paragraphs. After covering sentence-level issues in the last section, let’s take paragraphs in this section.
Section III: How to write coherent paragraphs?
11. How to overcome blank-screen syndrome?
If you’re like most, you’ll find it hard to start. You take the seat, open your laptop, and then get stuck, wondering where to start. Blank-screen syndrome! Start can be challenging.
Remember, Kurt Vonnegut quote right at the beginning of the post. Writing isn’t easy. No one, including the most accomplished writers, has escaped blank-screen syndrome (staring at the blank computer screen not knowing what to do).
How do you overcome the challenge? Two simple steps, but they require some determination:
A. Prepare a structure of what you want to write
Before you start banging the keys, brainstorm and prepare an outline you’ll follow for the piece you’re writing. With an outline in hand, you know what you need to write in the first paragraph, second paragraph, and so on, making it easier to start.
That’s why we had planning a structure as the very first point in this post.
B. Run writing-sprints
Yes, run a sprint.
I do that.
Remove all distractions before you start to write. No internet. No notifications on phone. No breaks. Nothing.
And then write. If you’re an absolute beginner, write for just 5-10 minutes. No more. Don’t make a sentence perfect before writing the next. Complete the first draft and then come back to edit (or polish or revise). Your first draft will be awful, but that’s fine. (As you’ll learn later, writing and revising as you go is a bad habit which slows down writing.)
That’s writing sprint. Once you’re into a sprint, you would find that writing isn’t as dreaded as you thought. It takes away a big monkey – the dreaded first draft – off your back.
Gradually increase the duration of your writing sessions – by 5 minutes (if you can raise it by more, go for it by all means) till you reach 30 minutes. Put in few such sessions in the day to finish the piece you’re writing.
12. Vary your sentences
Late Gary Provost, one of the most popular writing instructors in U.S. and author of twenty-four books in multiple genres, famously wrote:
And he continued with:
Got the point?
The first is an example of monotonous, same-type sentences. The second, in contrast, reads completely different because of the variety in sentences.
Vary your sentences. Avoid monotony.
13. Don’t lose focus of the topic
People write emails for job, with generic – and not specific to the job in question – skills.
People write essays for admission to college and MBA programs, leaving one sub-question unanswered.
People write essays that cover much more than what is asked and hence waste precious word count.
I’ve seen plenty of them, and staying on topic isn’t as easy as you may think. You’ve to make conscious effort to achieve that, and a way is to read and re-read the prompt or question during the planning and editing stage and ask yourself, “Am I on topic?”
14. Don’t write and edit at the same time
First write, and then edit. Most of us, however, write a sentence, polish (or edit) it to perfection, and then write the next sentence.
Writing and editing are two different skills – that’s why there are editors – and switching back and forth between the two in quick succession will slow your writing down to a trickle.
Don’t take it literally, but this is what happens when you focus on one task at a time (duration: 01:04 minutes):
The best writers first write and then edit. When writing the first draft, they churn out paragraphs after paragraphs after having a basic structure of the article/ essay in mind. Little wonder, their first draft can be really bad. Ernest Hemingway, one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, famously said:
The first draft of anything is garbage.
Let yours be bad too. It doesn’t matter.
Come back to edit after you’ve finished the first draft. This way, you’ll take much less time than when you write and edit simultaneously.
15. Edit after some time
This paragraph from Penguin Writer’s Manual puts it succinctly:
Where circumstances allow, it helps to leave an interval of time between the writing of a draft and its revision. After time spent doing something else, you may well be able to come back to your writing with fresh eyes and greater willingness to be self-critical. Not only that, but the unconscious mind tends to work on in secret, while your conscious attention is directed elsewhere.
You’re likely to get fresh ideas when you detach from your first draft for some time.
For the uninitiated, editing is much more than spell- and grammar-check. (Although there are tools such as Grammarly – now even Google has started providing grammar checks on Google Docs – that can detect grammar mistakes in your documents and emails, its best to proofread it yourself.)
In his popular book On Writing Well, William Zinsser beautifully encapsulates how to edit:
Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Each every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? …Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?
In summary, editing entails:
- Rearranging paragraphs to get a better, logical flow from one paragraph to the next,
- Ruthlessly dropping anything that’s redundant,
- Making your sentences sharper,
- Replacing broad, vague words with more precise words
16. Make your writing credible through data, quotes, and research
Here are few tips on advanced search on Google that will make your research (of the topic you’re writing on) more effective:
Use Google Scholar
Use Google Scholar to search for scholarly literature you can quote in your article. The number of citations under each link will tell you how popular a scholarly article/ research is.
Adjust date range
Search explicit phrase
Let’s say you’re looking for content on inbound marketing. Instead of just typing inbound marketing into the Google search box, you will likely be better off searching explicitly for the phrase. To do this, simply enclose the search phrase within double quotes. That is, search “inbound marketing” instead of inbound marketing.
Search a particular site
Google “inbound marketing site: abc.com” to search the query ‘inbound marketing’ on the site abc.com.
Search for stats
Google “inbound marketing + statistics” to search statistics on ‘inbound marketing’.
Section IV: What else can you do to become a better writer?
17. Read plenty
Best writers are also invariably prolific readers.
Through reading, you get new ideas to write on.
Through reading, you can learn the writing style of best writers.
And if you’re a starter, through reading, you can improve your grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation.
18. Break grammar rules
In the introductory chapter to her legendary book Mindset, Carol Dweck writes:
A little note about grammar. I know it and I love it, but I haven’t always followed it in this book. I start sentences with ands and buts. I end sentences with prepositions. I use the plural they in contexts that require the singular he or she. I’ve done this for informality and immediacy, and I hope that the sticklers will forgive me.
People break grammar rules quite often, more so when writing on the internet, for the reason of making their writing reader-friendly. But you need to know the rules first before you break them. (That’s why the advice to know your grammar earlier in the post.)
19. Maintain a journal
Robin Sharma, the author of bestsellers such as Monk who sold his Ferrari, does.
Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers and author of multiple bestsellers, does.
Timothy Ferriss does. Ryan Holiday does.
Almost all writers do. They take notes whenever an idea strikes them or a relevant information comes their way. That’s how they build an incredible repository of content that they can dig from when they’ve to write.
If you want to write good stuff, you too should make note-taking a habit.
Maintain a handy journal where you note down ideas, examples, analogies, data, and anything else that come to your mind related to topics you write on. These ideas can strike you anytime and if you don’t capture them immediately, you may lose them. So maybe your phone is the best place to accumulate them, topic wise. (You may use Evernote app for this purpose.) I note them down the old-fashioned way on an Excel sheet or a scrap of paper if I can’t access the Excel immediately.
And when you sit down to write, draw from this collection.
20. Learn from experts – Crawl Method
I don’t know if others do this or not, but, few years back, I started crawling (reading slowly) few pages of books and articles to improve my English Language Skills, especially written.
When reading a book, I slow down on three random pages. These three pages take me 15-20 minutes to complete, many times more than what I take in normal reading. On these pages, I actively notice choice of words, variation in length of sentences, transition words between sentences and paragraphs, punctuation (especially comma, which can be confusing), how arguments are made and demolished, and so on.
During this microscopic scrutiny, I also look at how the rules in grammar and writing I’ve learnt have been applied – or broken. For example, when you look at the title of this article – Startups should read this checklist before they go ‘whale hunting’ for big partners – you revise scare quotes (used here in ‘whale hunting’), one of the usages of quotation marks.
21. Practice like Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, widely believed to be the most accomplished American of his time, was bad at writing when young. Determined to improve, he picked few good articles from one of his favorite magazines, The Spectator, and summarized them in few sentences.
He came back to these notes after few days and expanded the summary in his own words. (If you write within a short span of time after reading something, you’ll subconsciously copy the style you read. But if you space reading and writing by few days, then your writing won’t be influenced.) After writing the piece afresh, he used to compare his work with the original in the magazine and learn where he was lacking. To quote Benjamin Franklin:
I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
And in order to improve structure in his writing, he scrambled up his notes on a particular article, waited few weeks, and then rearranged them into the most logical order he could think of. To quote him again:
I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts.
After reordering, he compared the order (or structure) with the original to know how he did.
This sort of practice is also called deliberate practice, the way experts practice. Look at many more such examples from different fields in this post.
22. Stick to a niche
If you want to leverage you writing for professional gains, stick to a niche. (This is assuming that you’re already publishing or want to publish your writing through own blog or platforms such as Medium, Quora, and guest blogs.)
If you write well in a niche, you build reputation in that field, enhance your personal brand. Andrew Chen, for example, has built a reputation in the startup community through his blog. He, in fact, got noticed by his current firm through his blog more than a decade before he joined it in a senior position. (His writing may even attract business deals – entrepreneurs read his blog and his organization invests in startups.) Another example is Casey Winters, who writes about his experiences on his blog.
23. Go for quality over quantity
If you’re publishing your writings, go for quality over quantity. A quality article once a month is worth more than ten average a month.
24. Write regularly
Writing is a skill and you can’t learn it without, of course, writing.
Start small. If your writing so far is limited to constructing few sentences on cow or importance of trees, then start in the same vein – few sentences on any topic, even if they’re incoherent.
In few weeks, graduate to 100-odd words. And then more.
Regularity is key, though. Write every day. If you’re too busy, write every alternate day. Whatever your frequency, maintain it. A good way to make writing a habit is to always write at the same time of the day.
Section V: Others
25. If you’re writing for the soft medium – web, word documents, etc.
Reading emails, web articles, and documents (PDF, word, etc.) is tough on eyes. On these medium, many of us are often skimming – and not reading – line by line. Therefore, you need to make it easy for people to read by inserting breaks for eyes. Specifically, you can:
- Write small paragraphs (like in this post)
- Use headings and subheadings liberally
- Use bullet points wherever you can
- Leave sufficient gap between lines and paragraphs. (For word documents, you can easily adjust this. I keep spacing of 1.3 between lines and 18 pt between paragraphs on MS Word.)
- Use images if the article gets too long
Here is an example of what not to do when writing for the web. It violates most of the above points and, therefore, is tough on eyes.
Besides, spend time to come up with a title that captures attention (shouldn’t be misleading and click-bait, though). Impatience is the hallmark of web behavior. People bounce from one website to the other every few minutes, even seconds. If your title is not compelling, people may move on without clicking your piece. Imagine, a 1,000-word article going unread because of a 10-word title.
26. It’ll take excruciatingly long in the beginning
If you’re aware of the problems you’ll face in your journey to improve English – written and spoken – you’re more likely to last the distance. One such problem is slow beginning.
In the beginning, things usually move slower than you think. At this stage, don’t compare yourself with an expert. If you do, you might quit, because you might be taking five times more time than an expert does.
Vivek Wadhwa, a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and a prolific contributor to Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and others, had a steep writing journey. To quote him from his LinkedIn blog:
It took me more than 40 hours to write my first BusinessWeek piece: Bollywood, Here I come. Then it got progressively easier. It took 30 hours for the next piece, 20 hours on average for the next few, then five to ten hours; and now it takes me two to four hours per piece, depending on how much research it necessitates. When I know my stuff, I can sometimes knock articles over in less than an hour.
The blog posts I used to write in 20 hours as a beginner now take mere 3-4 hours, and I’m still improving. If you persist and keep improving (this is key), you too will speed up in due course. This curve is natural.