Writing skill is one of those things you’re born with or you’re not. Some people can make garbage day sound elegant; others compose love notes that read more like the list of horrifying side effects at the end of prescription drug commercials.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your writing ability from “pretty bad” to “passable”—to fake being a good writer, if you will. Practice won’t create talent, but it can definitely get you to mediocre.
For example, I have been practicing yoga, even though I am not flexible and have the balance skills of a drunk pug. I will never be great at yoga. I will probably never even be good. But thanks to consistent practice, I can now do that fancy crow pose.
In addition to practice, I have some insider tips that can help you fake being a good writer. Don’t tell the other writers I gave these to you.
1. Start thinking of writing as your job.
Do you send emails? Do you make presentations? Then you need to know how to write.
It can be tempting to say, “I’m not a writer,” but good communication is a huge part of most jobs. If you commit bad writing, you’re likely missing out on sales opportunities, selling your ideas short and limiting your possibilities for professional growth.
The good news is, while not everyone can be an Ernest Hemingway, just about anyone can be an effective communicator. Start considering writing as part of your job, and you’ll feel more compelled to be good at it.
2. Know the rules so you can break them.
After “I’m not a writer,” the most popular bad writing strategy/excuse is, “I know how to write, but I’m not good at the grammar stuff. I’ll just write a bunch of stuff down and someone else will clean it up for me.” No.
Proper grammar and usage are a part of good writing, not extra bonus points. Grammar doesn’t exist because nitpicky people like to make rules—it’s there so your ideas can be properly understood. If your proposal is filled with the wrong “their” and is freckled with commas, you have not written well, even if the underlying ideas are good.
Am I saying you should write like an English teacher? Not at all. Depending on your brand and audience, you may want to be a little informal, which means you get to do fun things like write incomplete sentences and start sentences with conjunctions. Like so. But to know how to effectively break the rules, you have to learn them first.
Invest a little time each day in brushing up on the basic grammar guidelines. Grammar Girl is an excellent resource for beginners and non-beginners alike.
Before you start typing away, write an outline of the important points you want to make and the evidence you have to back up those points. This doesn’t have to be a formal outline—even a simple list will do.
Thinking about what you want to say before you start writing will keep your writing concise and organized. You’ll also save yourself a lot of time and frustration.
4. Write like you—and for your audience.
People who aren’t confident in their writing skills often try to make up for it by trying to be “extra professional,” which translates into extra-long, complicated sentences and lots of jargon. Writing this way won’t trick me into thinking you’re a good writer. It will make me take naps.
Instead of trying to hide behind big words and drawn-out sentences, write like how you talk. I mean, maybe don’t write like how you yell at the TV when the ref’s made a bad call. Write like the smartest, coolest version of yourself, the kind who would get a standing ovation after making a presentation.
In addition to writing like you, you should also consider the people you’re writing for. Who are you talking to? What are they interested in? Keep these questions in mind as you write, and your writing will automatically be more focused.
5. Write about things you care about.
OK, you don’t always get to pick your topic when you’re writing for your job. But when you do—like if you’ve been asked to write a blog post—pick something you’re actually into. Your interest (or lack thereof) will come across to the reader.
Once you’ve chosen your topic, don’t be afraid to take a stand. Strong opinions are interesting. If you think Snapchat is the next big thing, say it! Don’t water down your writing with hedges like “in my opinion” or “some say.”
If you can’t pick what you’re writing about, find what’s interesting about your assigned topic. What’s cool about this product update? What feats of engineering went into that wiper blade? How will this new regulation affect your customers? Your readers will appreciate it if you’re able to bring a dry topic to life.
6. Trim and prune.
You’re finished writing—congrats! Now, go back and throw out about half of it.
Trim out everything that’s not essential. Easy targets are opening and closing paragraphs (lots of throat clearing and restating points), tangents that are interesting but not necessary and extra-long paragraphs that stick out from the rest. It may hurt to cut—after all, you put a lot of work into getting it onto the page. But the tighter your writing is, the more effective it will be.
While you’re trimming, you may find that there are better ways to phrase the material you’re keeping. Prune as you trim, and your writing will be even stronger.
This last step is easy, but it’s also boring so people find excuses to skip it. Proofread your work. You don’t need top-notch ninja grammar skills to proofread. You’re just making sure that your points aren’t being obscured by obvious typos or weird phrasing.
I proofread my own work by reading it aloud to myself (in a whisper to avoid being the most annoying work neighbor ever). Reading aloud helps you separate what you’ve actually written from what you think is on the page. You can also have a colleague look over your writing for you.
No matter how you do it, you have to proofread. Every email, every proposal page, every PowerPoint slide. It’s the easiest way to seem like a better writer than you are.
And there you have it—7 cheat codes to decent writing. Have any other great tips for faking good writing skills? We’d love to chat about it on Twitter (@batesmeron) or down here in the comments.
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