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). Nothing of that sort happens in speaking.
Recommended post on related topic:
Let’s get straight into the topic. Here is how you can improve your written English:
1. Get proficient in grammar
Can you spot mistakes, if any, in the following sentences?
Its a wise cat that finds it’s own food in the absence of its owner.
He is one of those persons who has never run away from responsibilities.
Although both speakers were politically correct, neither was impressive.
Here are the correct forms:
It’s a wise cat that finds its own food in the absence of its owner.
He is one of those persons who have never run away from responsibilities.
Although both speakers were politically correct, neither was impressive. [There was no mistake in this sentence.]
Without sound grasp on grammar, you can’t construct correct – let alone compelling – sentences, and as a result everything else falls.
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 books on grammar and punctuation (next section), you may find following post useful:
2. Get proficient in punctuation, especially the common ones
Can you spot punctuation mistakes, if any, in the following sentences?
Marjorie’s husband, Colonel Nelson paid us a visit yesterday.
The director won the award for the best movie, the following year he failed to win any.
How many syllables are there in the pronunciation of word serendipity?
She is wearing a dark blue dress.
The correct forms are:
Marjorie’s husband, Colonel Nelson, paid us a visit yesterday.
The director won the award for the best movie, but the following year he failed to win any. [Alternatively, you can split it into two sentences or use semicolon instead of comma.]
How many syllables are there in the pronunciation of word ‘serendipity’?
She is wearing a dark-blue dress.
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.
3. Improve your active vocabulary
Not vocabulary. Active vocabulary.
Difference between active and passive vocabulary
You can understand most words while reading, but you don’t use even a tiny fraction of them in your writing and speech. The words you can understand but can’t use form what’s called passive vocabulary. The ones you can use form your active vocabulary.
Consider this sentence:
The two-day break from the work was invigorating. During the break, I plugged out completely from my digital world and indulged in what I longed to do for long – lazing around, hiking, and fishing.
Most of you’ll understand the three underlined words when reading, but only few of you would use them in their writing and speech. What about you?
That’s the difference between active and passive vocabulary.
Why a strong active vocabulary is important?
Because you need to use precise words to write effectively.
Consider following examples:
I hit the ball so hard that it fell more than 100 meters away on the rooftop of a three-story building.
I hit the ball so hard that it dropped more than 100 meters away on the rooftop of a three-story building.
I hit the ball so hard that it landed more than 100 meters away on the rooftop of a three-story building.
I’ve seen all three descriptions in use multiple times. The best 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 through examples as well. And, more importantly, use them.
The following post covers in detail how you can shift words from your passive to active vocabulary. It also includes few exercises you can practice every day to use dozens of words in minutes.
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’.
4. Learn from experts – Crawl Method
I don’t know if others do this or not, but I started crawling (reading slowly) few pages of books and articles few years back to learn from reputed authors and writers.
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.
5. Benjamin Franklin way
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.
6. How to overcome blank-screen syndrome?
No one, including the most accomplished writers, has escaped 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.
How do you overcome the challenge?
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.
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.
If you’re looking to control digital distractions, you may find this post useful:
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.
7. 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:
Provide brief background so that the reader knows why s/he is reading the essay. In this case, you may mention how social media has assumed addictive proportions and present few startling statistics – hours per day people are using it, for example.
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.
8. 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 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
- Searching 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
- Searching a particular site: “inbound marketing” site: abc.com will help you search ‘inbound marketing’ on the site abc.com
- Searching for stats: Google “inbound marketing + statistics”
9. 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.
10. Show relationship between sentences or clauses through appropriate words
Consider these three variants of the same sentence:
He slipped and hurt himself on his way to office, and he carried on with his work.
He slipped and hurt himself on his way to office, but he carried on with his work.
He slipped and hurt himself on his way to office. Nonetheless, he carried on with his work.
And two of another:
John likes to play, and Mary likes to watch her favorite TV series on weekends.
John likes to play on weekends. In contrast, Mary likes to watch her favorite TV series.
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:
I went to the grocery store to buy milk and when returning I stopped at the pharmacy to buy medicines.
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 use non-additive words, we limit ourselves to few common ones such as ‘but’ and ‘because’.
11. Use active voice
Use active voice, not passive.
Active voice is direct and leaves little ambiguity on who is performing the action.
The evidence has been carefully considered and there seems to be ground for disciplinary action.
Having considered the evidence carefully, I think disciplinary action is called for.
The first, in passive voice, doesn’t bring clarity on who has considered the evidence. The second, in active voice, does.
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:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
And he continued with:
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Got the point?
Vary your sentences. Avoid monotony.
13. 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,
- Dropping anything that’s redundant,
- Making your sentences sharper,
- Replacing broad, vague words with more precise words
14. 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
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.
15. 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.
16. 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 section 19, too stand out for sharing their experiences aplenty in their writings.
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. Maintain a journal
Robin Sharma, the author of bestsellers such as Monk who sold his Ferrari, does it.
Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers and author of multiple bestsellers, does it.
If you want to write good stuff, you too should do it.
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.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. 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.)
22. 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.
23. It’ll take excruciatingly long in the 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 may quit, because you may 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 a 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.