15 steps to improve your writing skills

Whether you’re a student, a journalist, a copywriter, or a blogger, there’s always time to improve on your writing skills.

Here are fifteen ways to go about it…

1. Learn to write

No, we’re not being sarcastic. Much of what we learn in school and college, we forget by the time it comes to put it into practice. Take the time to familiarise yourself with basic grammar and spelling: you know, the sort of thing you’d deride someone for if they posted it on a Facebook status.

2. Turn off spelling and grammar checks

Spelling and grammar checks on word-processing software promote bad habits for even the most diligent writers. For many, it’s a crutch. After all, why bother learn the basics when your writing app will spot them and maybe even autocorrect them for you? By switching them off and relying on your own writing skills, you will become a more polished and more confident writer.

3. Read

Really, this list could have been this one point. Read. Read everything. Fiction and non-fiction, lifestyle magazines and academic journals, parish newsletters and political manifestos. The more you read, the more aware you are of the written word and the better your writing skills will become.

4. Write like your life depends upon it

While patience is a virtue, so is meeting deadlines. Writing at speed helps your writing to find its own natural rhythm, which readers often find captivating. Any errors that slip in can always be dealt with later in the process.

5. Read it back to yourself

The difference between reading something in our heads and reading it out loud is extraordinary. Our brain anticipates what our eyes should be seeing on the page and will often skip by mistakes unless we’re concentrating. When reading out loud, errors in spelling, grammar, and syntax become more glaring and simpler to correct.

6. Tear someone apart

Not literally. Find an article or a column by a writer you admire and dissect it. We recommend using a paper print-out and a red pen for this task, as you’re less likely to miss anything. Learn to be a better writer by being able to identify it in others.

7. For better or worse

You learn more from bad writing than you do from good. Mistakes in another person’s prose leap out at you in a way your own errors never seem to. This gives you strong pointers in what to avoid and can help you in spotting such issues in your own work.

8. Use an outline

It’s a popular myth that most writers write by the seat of their pants (there is even a term for this in the writing community – ‘pantsers’), While some may choose to take this route, most stick with the tried-and-tested outline method, and for good reason. An outline allows you to set out the structure of your work from the beginning and tailor it as you go along. This improves pacing and reduces the amount of editing you have to do.

9. Your first draft is terrible – just accept that

Ernest Hemingway once said that he would write drunk and then edit sober. While we don’t advocate that approach, your first draft is still going to look as though you wrote it after (or during) a two-day bender. The good news? Nobody will ever see it, not until you’ve taken it and turned it into something exceptional.

10. See how far you’ve come

This is more of a reminder for those writers who have been doing this for a few years now and perhaps no longer think there is room for improvement. Take your first published work from your archive – don’t pretend you don’t have one. We ALL have one! Now choose one from a couple of years ago and, finally, your most recently published piece. Now read them. Seeing your writing skills improve over time is a reminder to us all that we still have much to learn. The minute we forget that, our writing starts to stagnate.

11. Have an opinion

Whether you’re writing about politics, technology, or a church fete, you should have an opinion. Being honest will help you find your voice as a writer, improving your writing skills with passion.

12. Research

We live in a world of fake news. As a responsible writer, it is your responsibility to tell the truth. Whatever you’re writing research it well, using more than one source. Most importantly, if the research produces a different story from what you were expecting, don’t be afraid to say so. All that knowledge will give your writing weight and gravitas, earning you a reputation as a writer who can be trusted,

13. Learn to quote

Most journals, newspapers and – increasingly – websites, expect you to be able to make accurate and properly cited quotations, if for no other reason than to avert accusations of plagiarism. You owe it to yourself to learn how to do it.

14. The perfect is the enemy of the good

However good your finished article, it will never be perfect. Somewhere in your prose there will be an overused phrase, a misattribution, an errant comma, a misused homonym, or any one of a thousand tiny errors. The good news is that it doesn’t matter. Producing quality material on a consistent basis is the keep. Don’t drop your standards, but likewise don’t obsess over unobtainable perfection.

15. Help in the palm of your hand

Most of the ways to improve your writing skills that we’ve covered so far have been academic in their approach. Now to move from the theoretical to the practical, with a piece of modern technology that will improve your writing skills beyond all measure: the Scanmarker. It is an Optical Character Recognition (or OCR) reader designed to fit into any purse or pocket. It fulfills a number of the functions already discussed in this article. By scanning a printed version of your own work, the Scanmarker will read it back to you allowing you to spot glaring errors. Alternatively, you can use it to scan quotes accurately and effectively, when supporting your arguments. Likewise, when researching an article you can cut and paste from multiple books, simply by scanning the text in question and importing it into your writing application. With so many uses in such a handy-sized device, it’s an essential purchase for any professional or aspiring writer.

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