I’ve been asked a surprising number of times by colleagues and friends how they can improve their writing, and I have some suggestions that can help. These suggestions are designed for business professionals who need to write better, but some of the tactics will work for everyone.
Write with an Audience in Mind
Thinking about your audience and trying hard to communicate with them will focus your mind and make you less sloppy as a writer. What do they know? What don’t they know? Decide and then tell them only what you must and in as few words as possible.
I am sure you have heard this one before, but unfortunately it’s true. You don’t learn to play golf better by reading books or watching TV. It’s the same with writing, so try this trick: write a paragraph or two every day about something you are passionate about – lowering taxes or driving your new car. Your love for your children is another great subject. It doesn’t matter what you write about. You can burn them or tear them up. It doesn’t matter. Just write them – with an audience in mind.
I am always amazed at how many magazines are available in my local Barnes & Noble, and I would suggest you pick one up every week or subscribe. The trick is not to think about reading the whole magazine, which invites stacking them behind your study door unread. Take charge and choose one article that really interests you and read it. Then recycle the magazine. I subscribe to The New Yorker, The Economist, and the NY Times on weekends. If I read these each week cover to cover, I’d never have time to do anything else, so I only read what interests me. I know this sounds wasteful, but it works – and reduces clutter.
The next time you are in a boring meeting, don’t sit there and have fantasies about hanging yourself from the nearest light fixture. Ask yourself why this person is so boring – too much detail, bad organization, awful delivery (too fast? too slow? too monotone?) These are some of the cardinal sins of bad writing too – and some remedies are fewer words, shorter sentences, and more guideposts (headings, boldface, lists, keywords).
Get Professional Advice
Recently I was looking at two white papers done by a digital agency, and both were reasonably well written but had the same glaring error – the pronoun reference was often wrong, which made the writing annoying and unclear. You may have one or two bad habits like this, and correcting them would be easy and could help your writing improve greatly. If you don’t have professional editors at work to bribe with lunch, you could try the local adult school. I recently attended a four-week course taught by a freelance writer who I’m sure would have closely edited a writing sample of mine for a good bottle of wine. Memoir writing classes are also popular these days, and this is the kind of course that can give you some fun practice along with good advice, especially if you explain to the teacher that you would value a professional opinion.